ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The champions of the winter meetings entered the 2012 season armed with Albert Pujols, who was supposed to cure all of the Los Angeles Angels' offensive woes.
At minimum, the best offensive player of this century would provide enough run support for a stellar starting rotation to help get the Angels back on top in the American League West.
But by April 27, Pujols was without a homer, the offense was still without any punch, and the Angels were a meager 6-14 despite decent enough work from Jered Weaver and newcomer C.J. Wilson in the rotation.
A day later, though, Mike Trout arrived from Triple A. A few weeks later, an injury to Vernon Wells locked Mark Trumbo into a regular position and heated up his bat.
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That young duo, one a can-do-it-all rookie who turns 21 next month and the other a homer-hitting machine, have sparked the Angels' turnaround and securely placed them in the postseason picture.
The first-place Texas Rangers get another look at the All-Stars this weekend during a three-game series against their nearest division rival.
"Very confident and dangerous," said Rangers manager Ron Washington, who got to know them better last week at the All-Star Game. "They're always smiling. Love the game. They've got all the attributes to be stars, and that's why they're stars right now."
The Angels trail by six games ahead of tonight's series opener but have the second-best record (44-29) in the majors since April 27 after matching the worst start in club history.
Their upswing coincides directly with the April 28 promotion of Trout, who was hitting .403 in 20 games with Salt Lake City. He stabilized the top of the lineup and also infused life into a shell-shocked clubhouse.
"He provided a pretty instant spark," Trumbo said. "We'd been trying a number of things and hadn't really found a consistent lineup. Since he's come on board, I think our record speaks for itself, and the kind of baseball we've been playing is the caliber we were expecting."
Trout enters the weekend as the AL's leader in batting average and stolen bases. He is the front-runner to be Rookie of the Year, and is considered by many to be the favorite for MVP.
No player since 1920 had as many hits (100), RBIs (45) and stolen bases (30) in his first 69 games as Trout. He and Trumbo are two of the six major leaguers who have posted a .300 average and 14 homers since April 28.
And Trout can cover some serious ground in center field.
"It's been crazy for me," said Trout, who hit .220 in 123 at-bats in 2011. "Coming in the clubhouse that first day in Cleveland, everyone was, like, relieved. I didn't realize how bad it was. We won, and the mood just totally switched over."
Trumbo, 26, came into the season with far more experience than Trout, and his power isn't anything new after hitting 29 homers last year as the runner-up for AL Rookie of the Year.
But he came into the season without a position after Pujols took his spot at first base, and wasn't expecting to be an everyday player. He started the year at third base and played it poorly, and at one point in April started five straight games at five positions.
Though he was in the lineup regularly, he settled in as the Angels' left fielder when Wells suffered a thumb injury that required surgery. Wells is on the comeback trail, but won't supplant Trumbo.
"It's been interesting," Trumbo said. "Coming in, I wasn't expecting to play every day. As things have transitioned, I wound up playing more outfield. I feel more comfortable in the outfield, but it's a work-in-progress at times."
That described the Angels in the first month of season, but not now. It wasn't Pujols who rescued them, but a gifted 21-year-old and a big-league sophomore who couldn't be kept out of the lineup.
"They've got two pretty good players over there," Washington said.
Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760