ST. PETERSBURG — Angels slugger Albert Pujols has never been in this long of a longball slump, entering a three-game series with the Rays tonight without a homer in his first 65 at-bats.
As a result, Pujols, a three-time National League MVP with 445 career homers, is fighting off questions as much as fastballs, especially with the burden of a 10-year, $240 million contract.
But if you ask the Rays, Pujols, 32, is as dangerous as ever.
"He's Pujols," veteran reliever Joel Peralta said. "He's got a bat like everybody else, but he's just better. … He's just the greatest, the best hitter in the game right now. He can do everything. If you pitch him in, he can hit a bomb. If you pitch him away, he can hit a double. He's just too good."
Pujols hasn't been as good this year, his first in Anaheim, hitting .246, 82 points off his career average of .328, with four RBIs in 16 games. Tampa Bay, which hasn't allowed a homer in 43 innings, doesn't want Pujols to snap his streak at Tropicana Field.
"He's one of those guys that can have no home runs right now, and end the season with 50," starter James Shields said. "You can't take him lightly, that's for sure."
Peralta is one of a handful of current Rays who have faced Pujols, who spent his first 11 years in the NL with the Cardinals. But everyone is aware.
"I've seen enough," said starter Jeff Niemann, who hasn't faced Pujols. "He's probably one of those guys that, he (wasn't) in your league, but you know everything he does, what he's capable of doing. He's good at covering both sides of the plate, up and down. He can hit good strike pitches, and he can hit the good pitches, too, so that really complicates things as a pitcher."
Those Rays who have faced Pujols say there are a few ways to approach him. Just because he has very few weaknesses, you have to stick with your strengths and trust your stuff.
"You can't be intimidated either — because that's when you make mistakes," said injured reliever Kyle Farnsworth, whom Pujols is 8-for-21 with four homers against. "Just stay within yourself and go out and try to make a few quality pitches.
"If you're going to get beat, get beat on the pitch you want to throw."
Manager Joe Maddon puts Pujols in the same class as Blue Jays All-Star Jose Bautista, who is "always dangerous."
"I don't think he (Pujols) ever feels like he's really in trouble during the course of a game, whether it's offense or defense," Maddon said.
Though it's important to be careful, Peralta says you can't be overly cautious.
"Sometimes, it's throw strikes, and let him hit the ball, because if you start going away from him too much you fall behind in the count," Peralta said. "And then he'll get you."
Farnsworth said Pujols hits the ball out over the plate well but can be somewhat vulnerable inside, where you have to establish yourself.
"But if you miss that spot, it's a very small hole," Farnsworth said.
Tonight's starter, left-hander David Price, will have the first crack at Pujols. He said he grew up watching Pujols on TV and faced him once in the 2010 All-Star game, retiring him on a hard-hit flyout to Ichiro Suzuki.
"He's a good hitter and we'll attack him," Price said. "If he comes in with a goose egg (in homers), I want him to leave with one."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]