ANAHEIM (AP) — Mike Trout asked Albert Pujols for advice on his playoff debut before the Los Angeles Angels stepped into the October spotlight, and the veteran slugger with two World Series rings had some simple guidance for baseball’s best young player.
“He told me to just be myself, and not try to hit that home run when you don’t need it,” Trout said. “Just keep that same swing that got you here, and go from there. (But) it’s definitely a bigger game, for sure. All eyes are on you.”
Trout reaches the milestone he craves most Thursday night when he runs out to center field at the Big A for the Angels’ AL Division Series opener against the Kansas City Royals, who must concoct a quick encore to their incredible 12-inning comeback victory in the wild-card game.
Trout led the majors in RBIs, runs and extra-base hits this season for the major league-leading Angels (98-64), capping nearly three full seasons of electrifying play with a likely MVP campaign — and a playoff berth.
It sure beats last October, which the New Jersey native spent back home in a tree stand when he wasn’t watching the playoffs on television.
“Now I’m hunting a ring instead of deer,” Trout said with a laugh.
While the Royals are in their first postseason since 1985, the Angels hadn’t been in the playoffs since 2009, and several regulars share Trout’s lack of experience on the big stage. But Pujols has a vaunted postseason history from his time in St. Louis, and third baseman David Freese was the MVP of the World Series and the NL Championship Series for the Cardinals just three years ago.
While Freese was having the best month of his career in 2011, Trout was coming off his season in the Double-A Texas League. Trout spent just 20 more games in the minors before heading to Orange County to stay.
“I don’t think I need to say anything to Mike Trout,” Freese said. “He’s been in the spotlight since Day One, and he’s going to be in it again. The game is better with Mike Trout in the postseason.
I think we all understand that, and it’s exciting to get him in there and get Albert back in there.”
Indeed, the big-budget Angels are getting a return on their lavish investments in Trout, Pujols and Josh Hamilton, who will return to the Angels’ lineup for the opener, batting seventh and playing left field after missing 21 of the last 22 games with injuries.
Angels ace Jered Weaver (18-9, 3.59 ERA) starts against Kansas City’s Jason Vargas (11-10, 3.71), who pitched for Los Angeles last year. The pitchers have been close friends since their days at nearby Long Beach State — but before their families take their joint vacation already planned for this winter, they’ll attempt to keep their clubs rolling.
“There aren’t very many players like (Trout) that come along,” Vargas said. “(But) you’re going to have to negotiate that whole lineup, and if you think about one hitter, your work is going to be cut out for you.”
The Royals’ long-awaited playoff return has already been memorable. Kansas City is still buzzing after the club’s rally from a late four-run deficit and another 12th-inning hole for a dramatic 9-8 victory over Oakland on Tuesday night.
The Royals celebrated with champagne and goggles after a game that lasted nearly five hours, but they were clear-headed and clear-eyed by the time they arrived Wednesday for a light workout.
“Not a lot of sleep, but that’s OK,” left fielder Alex Gordon said. “We’ll take the lack of sleep for moving on and coming to L.A.”
Kansas City realizes the stiff challenge posed by the Angels, who overcame numerous pitching injuries with a boost from the majors’ most productive offense. The Royals struggled to score all season, but made up for it with steady starting pitching and a dynamic bullpen, which means the ALDS matches strengths against strengths.
If the Royals hope to return to raucous Kauffman Stadium with some of the momentum still intact from their win over the Athletics, an early victory in Anaheim would be helpful. Manager Ned Yost is confident that his raw roster gained experience quickly this week.
“You couldn’t have had a more charged atmosphere, more pressure, more intensity than we had,” Yost said. “Our backs couldn’t be more against the wall than being four runs down against Jon Lester in the eighth inning, and they didn’t fold. They kept fighting and getting after it and found a way to win.”