ANAHEIM -- Is Josh Hamilton back to using chewing tobacco, and is it related to his recent hot streak at the plate? The Angels slugger wouldn't say on Wednesday -- though video of his recent at-bats have occasionally shown a black substance come out of his mouth and an L.A. Times reporter saw him spit out a wad of chewing tobacco on Tuesday.
"I just don't have any comments on it," Hamilton said. "It's one of those things where if I give you guys any kind of story, your story's going to be different from his story, your story's going to be different from his story. And then other people who aren't in this clubhouse, with you guys, are going to take your story and it's going to be an absolute mess. No, nothing is coming from these lips."
Hamilton slumped in the second half last year with the Rangers, batting .259 with 86 strikeouts in 69 games. He quit smokeless tobacco in late July, then started drinking too much caffeine to compensate, which led to the blurred vision that prompted him to miss five games in September.
After the season -- after the Rangers had blown a five-game lead with nine to play -- Rangers president Nolan Ryan told ESPN Dallas, "His timing on quitting smokeless tobacco couldn't have been worse." And in December, when asked on Dan Patrick's radio show about his second-half slump, Hamilton said: "I quit chewing tobacco, plain and simple."
Hamilton stayed away from tobacco during the offseason, through Spring Training and for most of the regular season, posting a .207/.262/.378 slash line in his first 72 games. And recently, he has turned a corner, batting .400 (10-for-25) during a seven-game hitting streak that has him back in the middle of the lineup.
Has a return to tobacco use coincided with his improvement at the plate?
"Until you actually see me reach in a bag of chewing tobacco, and pull it out, and put it in my mouth, then what's in there?" Hamilton said.
La Russa on hand for Pujols-Cardinals reunion
ANAHEIM -- As the Angels and Cardinals have played this week, and Albert Pujols has reunited with his former team, Tony La Russa has been in an awkward position -- seated in a vacant radio booth behind home plate, watching it all unfold.
"I have the longest history with Albert, but I've had wonderful memories with his Cardinal teammates, so it's real mixed emotions," La Russa said in a phone conversation on Wednesday morning, hours after Pujols went 0-for-3 with a walk in his first game against the Cardinals. "You want to see everybody do well. It was really interesting. He came up that first at-bat, [Lance] Lynn throws hard, and he just missed his first two fastballs. And then they got 3-2 and [Yadier Molina] kind of tricked him with a breaking ball. That shows you the competitor that Yadi is."
La Russa, who was also on hand for Wednesday's game but won't be at the ballpark for Thursday's series finale, essentially left St. Louis with Pujols. He announced his retirement from managing shortly after the 2011 World Series, then watched Pujols sign a 10-year, $240 million contract with the Angels a little more than a month later.
La Russa, currently working with Major League Baseball as a special advisor, doesn't fault the Cardinals or Pujols for the split.
Just baseball economics.
"The way that the rules are, free agency and so forth, and the money, it'll be rare that a great, great player, a franchise player, like [Cal] Ripken or [Derek] Jeter or Pujols, can stay with his team the entire career," La Russa said. "The only franchise players you'll see be able to stay with their club their entire career are going to be with the clubs that have such deep pockets that they can afford to pay that premium price from his money-making years all the way through to the end of his career.
"It was unfortunate, because Albert was in line to be Stan Musial Jr."
Pujols can in some ways be unrecognizable to La Russa these days. Heading into Tuesday, he was batting .247, with a .747 OPS that didn't rank among the top 80 in baseball and a perpetual hobble, from plantar fasciitis in his left foot and swelling in his right knee.
La Russa saw Pujols battle plantar fasciitis early in his career, and saw how much it hindered Mark McGwire in St. Louis.
Pujols' pain tolerance, La Russa said, "is amazing."
"I just think that if they can get him healthy, then they'll see the .300 hitter with 100 RBIs and 30 home runs," La Russa said. "Not only that, because he works -- he has no bad habits, doesn't drink alcohol, watches what he eats, and every year, he's smarter than he was before. So experience is a huge weapon for him. But he's playing hurt, and still he's representing."
Angels open wallet for prized Venezuelan left-hander
ANAHEIM -- The Angels went into the international signing period, which began on Tuesday, with a bonus pool just below $2 million. The expectation was that they'd do what they've done the last few years -- hand out smaller bonuses to as many prospects as possible.
But then the opportunity to sign a 16-year-old left-hander named Ricardo Sanchez came along.
The Angels consider Sanchez one of the top pitching prospects in the baseball-crazed nation of Venezuela. On Tuesday afternoon, they signed him to a reported $580,000 bonus, which is more than they've handed out in a few years, but less than what they expected Sanchez to sign for.
"If we were going to do something a little bit different, it had to be the right guy," said Angels international scouting director Carlos Gomez, who's in his first year. "It was probably a little bit more than we thought the biggest bonus was going to be this year, but he kind of fit all the things that we were looking to do."
Sanchez is only 5-foot-10 and 160 pounds, but his fastball can reach the low-90s and he has a good feel for his changeup and breaking ball, Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto said. Alex Torres of the Rays and Martin Perez of the Rangers have been popular comparisons.
Sanchez was most notably named MVP of August's Under-15 World Championships, pitching Venezuela to a win over Cuba in the title game. After the contract is officially approved by Major League Baseball, Sanchez will report to the Angels' new academy in the Boca Chica area of the Dominican Republic, and Gomez believes he can soon go to the United States to pitch in the Arizona Summer League.
Sanchez isn't ranked among MLB.com's Top 30 international prospects, and Baseball America lists him 27th. Gomez, who's been following him for the last couple of years, believes he should be in the top 10.
"I will wear you out with what I think of Ricardo Sanchez, not only as a player but the human being himself," Gomez said. "Phenomenal kid. Trainer is phenomenal, fantastic family. It's a nice face of the international world."
Angels may not be done dealing with Manny
ANAHEIM -- First there was Mike Napoli. Then it was A.J. Pierzynski. And in between it's been C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton jumping to the other side.
Soon, the Angels-Rangers rivalry could have another interesting face: Manny Ramirez.
Ramirez, who has served two suspensions for violating Major League Baseball's Drug Policy, had spent most of the season playing in Taiwan. And on Wednesday -- a little more than a month removed from his 41st birthday -- he signed a Minor League contract with the Rangers, who will send him to Triple-A Round Rock and may call him up after the All-Star break.
The Angels have had a couple of memorable encounters with Ramirez. There was Game 2 of the 2007 American League Division Series, when he hit a monster walk-off homer off Francisco Rodriguez that bounced off the Coke bottle beyond the Green Monster of Fenway Park. And there was that time in July 18, 2008, when Ramirez fell short on a diving attempt in left field and rolled over on top of the ball.
Ramirez hit .352 with eight homers, 13 doubles and 43 RBIs for the EDA Rhinos in Taiwan, then left the team on June 19 in hopes of landing a big league opportunity.
Now, "Manny Being Manny" may be coming back to Angel Stadium.
"Manny still loves to play baseball," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "I don't think you can argue that he's gone to great lengths to show that he can still play. We just saw some video on him, and that swing looks the same as it did when he was 30. He's going to get another opportunity at some point, I'm sure."
• The Angels have signed right-hander Elliot Morris, who was taken in the fourth round of the 2013 Draft, for just under slot value. Right-hander Blake Goins, a 12th-rounder out of Pearland High School in Texas, is the only draftee who remains unsigned. The organization is hopeful of striking a deal before the July 12 deadline.
• Hank Conger was back behind the plate for the Angels on Wednesday, with Chris Iannetta sitting. Since June 12, Conger has started nine games and Iannetta has started 10. Mike Scioscia didn't want to call it a platoon, per se, but did say "there's a bit of time-sharing that's been going on here in the last month, and I think it's been beneficial to both players."
• All the potential in-house candidates to start Saturday's game -- a spot left vacant because Tommy Hanson is on the disabled list -- pitched in Wednesday's 12-2 loss to the Cardinals. Garrett Richards gave up an unearned run in two innings, Michael Roth gave up two runs in one inning and Billy Buckner gave up two runs in 4 1/3 innings.
"We've got an idea," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said of the Saturday starter. "It's fluid, you never know what's going to happen the next two days, but we'll get it out there in a little bit."
• The Angels have scouted Cuban pitching prospect Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, who's expected to be a free agent soon, but his price is expected to get too steep for them.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.