CINCINNATI -- Albert Pujols is noticeably not himself yet, but he's playing nonetheless.
Pujols suited up for the third straight game on Thursday afternoon, even though it was a quick turnaround from the Wednesday night affair and even though the National League rules require him to be at first base in order to hit in the lineup.
"I'm limping a little bit, but I don't think it's because of my knee -- I think it's more because of my heel, that plantar fasciitis," said Pujols, who's 1-for-11 to start the season. "Running-wise, it's not as good as I want to, 100 percent, but it'll get there. I'm pretty happy with how I feel, how I'm running, how I'm moving, how I feel out there in the batter's box, which is something that last year was bothering me, big time."
Pujols started to look more like himself at the plate in Thursday's 5-4 loss, going 1-for-4 with a double, a hard lineout to right field and two RBIs, on a groundout and a sac fly. But he was caught stealing on Wednesday night, even though Reds first baseman Joey Votto wasn't even holding him on, and would've been thrown out trying to score from second on Thursday if catcher Ryan Hanigan hadn't missed the tag.
Now that the Angels are going back to American League rules, Pujols can expect to see some time at designated hitter the next few days. But while he waits for his legs to get under him, and the plantar fasciitis to heal, he's noticing a difference in the batter's box.
"Now I can get my two-strike approach, get low, get high and try different things," Pujols said. "It feels pretty good not to feel that pain in the back of your knee. To be able, this year, even in Spring Training, to do the things that I wasn't able to do [late last year], I have to be pretty happy about how I feel. But still, I'm getting my treatment. It's a process. Hopefully in the next month or so, I'll feel better. We work hard at it."
Trout, Reds' Frazier linked by Jersey
CINCINNATI -- It was in the fall of 2010, while playing for USA Baseball at the Pan-American Qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico, when Todd Frazier finally got a chance to meet that fellow New Jersey kid everyone kept raving about.
Mike Trout was only 19 then, coming off his first pro season and about 18 months removed from his senior prom, but Frazier was already in awe.
"It was crazy," the Reds' up-and-coming third baseman recalled. "I was sitting there with [Leon] Durham, the Triple-A hitting coach for the Detroit Tigers, and we were like, 'Holy cow, this guy's going to be for real.' I was talking to [pitcher] Todd Redmond, who played here. We were all looking; we were like, 'God, this guy's the real deal.' And we knew he was going to be something special. We really did. Just the way he played, the way he tracked balls down in the outfield, just how he went about himself. He was a pro."
Trout hit .350 in that tournament, providing just a taste of what would lead into an historic rookie season in 2012. And ever since then, Frazier and Trout have been buddies.
It's a Jersey thing.
The Garden State doesn't produce many Major Leaguers. In fact, only 19 native New Jersey guys played in the big leagues last year. But Trout and Frazier, who finished third in National League Rookie of the Year voting, are doing their part to show bright, young talent can come out of there.
"We take pride in guys from the East Coast, especially from Jersey, knowing there's a handful of guys that came out of Jersey," Trout said. "For him being up here now, at a young age, as well, it makes you feel good, to put Jersey on the map a little bit."
Frazier is six years older than Trout -- even though they have almost exactly the same amount of service time -- and grew up about 100 miles north of Trout's Millville, N.J., home. But the two have grown close the last few years -- and Frazier hasn't missed an opportunity to get on the Angels' 21-year-old outfielder.
"All the stuff he does, man," Frazier said. "I'm with him 100 percent, but I have to [talk some trash]. He's like one of my teammates because he's like a brother to me. He deserves everything that has come his way, he's a great person. But I have to put him in his place every once in a while because we don't want to get him too big real quick."
What has Frazier been on Trout about the most?
"Well, he's huge now," Frazier joked. "I don't know what happened this offseason -- he blew up. I'm confused why he didn't ask me to work out with him so I could look like him."
Angels brace for Hamilton's return to Texas
CINCINNATI -- Josh Hamilton's return to Texas is going to get a lot of media attention this weekend, with a news conference already scheduled for Friday morning, FOX airing the Saturday game and the finale being featured on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball.
Homecomings like this can only be a distraction. But at least, for the Angels' sake, he's getting it out of the way quickly.
"We'll see what transpires," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "but as time goes on, people will disconnect him with Texas and connect him more with us. He was a great contributor to that organization for the last five seasons, and I'm sure the fans understand his contributions."
Hamilton hasn't particularly downplayed the significance of his return to Rangers Ballpark, but he's tried his best to distance himself from it. There can be a tendency to try to do too much when facing your former team -- especially one that basically chose not to bring you back -- but Scioscia believes Hamilton will stay within himself.
"I don't know if Josh gets caught up in that, to be honest with you," the Angels' skipper said. "When he's in the dugout, at the plate, he's pretty level-headed, focused on the game. It was a good sign here on Opening [Day], taking his walks, staying within himself. I would imagine he's just going to go out and play baseball."
Vargas confident entering into his Angels debut
CINCINNATI -- Presenting example No. 3,754 for why Spring Training statistics mean nothing: Jason Vargas.
Vargas had a dreadful spring last year, posting a 12.46 ERA in 8 2/3 innings and giving up seven runs while recording two outs in his final Cactus League tuneup. He parlayed that into arguably his best season in the Majors, posting career highs in wins (14), innings (217 1/3), strikeouts (141), WHIP (1.18) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.56) with the Mariners.
That doesn't necessarily mean he'll have the same success with the Angels in 2013.
But when Vargas tells you he feels good heading into the season -- on the heels of posting a 7.54 ERA in the spring and giving up eight runs in 1 2/3 innings against the Dodgers on Friday -- perhaps you should give him the benefit of the doubt.
"I feel ready," Vargas said heading into his Friday debut. "It would've been nice to have a couple more good games, but I felt like I threw the ball well at times. I'm looking forward to getting out there and getting the feel of that first game."
The 30-year-old left-hander only threw about 60 pitches at Angel Stadium six days ago, but he said it's "not alarming" because he got about 90 under his belt the outing before and feels good stamina-wise. Vargas' first test will come against the division-rival Rangers, in the hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark, where he's posted a 4.80 ERA in 50 2/3 innings throughout his career.
It's a slightly different lineup Vargas was accustomed to from his days in Seattle, with Josh Hamilton, Michael Young and Mike Napoli gone -- but it's still a potent one.
"It's still a lot of the same core guys," Vargas said. "They had a lot of core guys the last few years. Minus Josh and Mike Young, those are two big keys to lose, but at the same time, they have some weapons in their lineup still, with [Adrian] Beltre and all the table-setters and just things they can do in that ballpark."
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.