ANAHEIM, Calif. – Albert Pujols stood at home plate, taking his time leaving the batter’s box, admiring the ball that looked like it could have landed on a freeway beyond Angel Stadium.
Leftfielder Ryan Sweeney knew it was gone and didn’t even budge once Pujols destroyed Carlos Villanueva’s 89 mph fastball. Any Cubs fans staying up late Tuesday night for this West Coast game post-Blackhawks must have felt like they’ve already seen this one before.
It sounded familiar after a 4-3 loss, the Cubs manager being asked if he thought about walking Pujols in the eighth inning and a Cubs pitcher trying to explain that go-ahead, two-run shot inside a quiet clubhouse. This just happened to be some 1,800 miles from St. Louis, and it didn’t say Cardinals across his chest.
“If I make a better pitch there, maybe it’s a different result,” Villanueva said. “But with a hitter like that, you can’t really miss over the plate in that situation and he did what he was supposed to do: Put it in the seats.”
[More: Villanueva on pitch selection to Pujols]
Pujols now has 54 homers and 138 RBIs in 175 career games against the Cubs, plus that memorable hug he gave former general manager Jim Hendry during batting practice at Wrigley Field two years ago.
The Ricketts family and the Epstein administration haven’t shown the interest or the ability to put together the kind of 10-year, $240 million megadeal the Angels will probably wind up regretting (if they aren’t already). That makes this week’s draft so critical.
For the record, manager Dale Sveum didn’t want to walk Pujols, who’s now hitting .244 with nine homers and 35 RBIs, which is about what Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo has so far produced in his age-23 season.
“No,” Sveum said. “(Mark) Trumbo could have done the same thing with the same pitch. He’s a little bit hotter than Pujols has been.”
Pujols has been on fire against Villanueva, entering the game with a career 1.030 OPS (9-for-28 with two homers) in that matchup. Sveum has frequently praised Villanueva’s ability to follow a game plan but wasn’t feeling it this time.
“We were not supposed to even come close to calling or throwing that pitch in that situation,” Sveum said. “The human factor – somewhere along the line we lose the scouting report from the bullpen to the mound.”
No one inside the organization needs to be reminded of the importance of the No. 2 overall pick. Team president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer didn’t travel to Orange County and will be meeting with their staff all week in Chicago.
“It’s huge,” Sveum said. “That’s probably why I haven’t talked to anybody in about two weeks. They’re in lockdown making sure we get the draft right.”
[More: Cubs trying a different approach with Starlin Castro]
The Angels are 26-33 and again showing that the teams that win the winter meetings and look good on paper don’t always get results on the field. Just look at the Blue Jays and the Dodgers.
Sveum pointed to the Yankees in the 1980s, how they couldn’t throw George Steinbrenner’s money at their problems. The Yankees had to find Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte – their Hall of Fame core – before rebuilding the dynasty.
“It’s not the formula all the time,” Sveum said. “The Florida Marlins went out and traded and bought this and that and they won. But in the long run, you look at all the teams that have won the World Series (and) bits and pieces come from somewhere else. (But) there’s always four or five or six – sometimes 10 – core players that they drafted and came up through the organization.”
But no one knows when the Cubs (23-33) are going to reach that contender status, much less become a championship-caliber team. They’ve blown 12 saves and lost 19 games in which they led at some point. The rebuilding process isn’t going to be easy to watch.
“It’s the same script,” Sveum said.
That’s why no one should have been surprised to see what Pujols did to the Cubs this time.
“I treat it like every game’s the same,” Pujols said. “Whether it’s Chicago, Houston, teams that I faced and had success against in the past, you can’t take this game for granted. It doesn’t matter what kind of numbers you have against one organization, you still have to go out there (and) they’re going to pitch you tough.
“Obviously, I’ve had good success against those guys because I’ve played (so many) games against them in my career, being in the same division as St. Louis. I take every game as my last game of my career, the last game of my life.”