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TB@LAA: Weaver fans five, holds Rays to two runs

ANAHEIM -- Albert Pujols can handle the prolonged slump, because it'll never get worse than it did during that homerless month and a half to start his Angels career in 2012. But struggling like this, with runners in scoring position, in clutch situations? That's a whole new phenomenon for the 34-year-old first baseman, and something that hit him hard after Friday's 3-0 loss to the Rays.

"I'll tell you what, this game teaches you something every day," Pujols said after coming up short in two critical run-scoring situations. "I've never gone through a slump like that with men in scoring position. I'm a lifetime .350 hitter with men on base. Especially if you look at my numbers with bases loaded. Those numbers are sick."

So far this year, not sick -- at least not in the good sense.

Pujols hit into a fielder's choice with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth and flied out to right with runners on first and second and two outs in the seventh, spoiling what little chances the Angels had to put up runs and making a tough-luck loser out of Jered Weaver, who pitched seven innings of two-run ball and seems to get better every five days.

Pujols is a career .330/.464/.622 hitter with runners in scoring position, and a .351/.348/.682 hitter with the bases loaded. Even last year, when plantar fasciitis crippled his season, he managed to bat .303 with runners in scoring position.

In the small sample size of the first month and a half this season, he's 8-for-52 in that department, and 0-for-6 with the bases loaded.

"Albert wants to achieve, there's no doubt about it," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said after his club snapped a three-game winning streak. "I wouldn't call it pressing, but he knows the type of player he can be -- especially when he's healthy, which he is now. He's been in a little bit of a downturn, but when he gets it, he keeps it for a long time. He'll get there."

Pujols went 1-for-4 on Friday, his only hit a first-inning single, and is 4-for-38 with no RBIs over his last nine games, his batting average dropping from .302 to .257 and the surge he carried in the early portion of the season now a distant memory.

"I'm struggling right now," he said. "I'm putting good swings, and just nothing's going my way. I've been here before. It's nothing that I'm going to panic about. That's the way it goes."

Pujols has said he isn't dealing with any physical ailments, though he admitted that the Rogers Centre turf took its toll on his lower half during the finale of a four-game series on Monday. He continues to say he's "putting good swings," feels somewhat at ease because the team -- still three games over .500 -- is winning games and takes solace in the fact that he's only struck out 19 times in 184 plate appearances.

"You see me striking out, rolling over, or popping the ball up, those are obviously the indications that tell me I'm in between," Pujols said. "But I'm seeing the ball good. I'm having great at-bats, and I'm one swing away from having things go my way."

Weaver, meanwhile, is already there.

Over his last six starts, the Angels' ace has allowed only eight runs in 38 2/3 innings, his ERA dropping from 5.79 to 3.14. Scioscia believes he's "getting better every time he touches the ball" and Weaver said Friday was "probably the best I've felt all year, as far as being able to command the fastball, strength and mixing in off-speed."

Health-wise, this is the best Weaver said he's felt since "probably 2008, 2009."

The 31-year-old right-hander, limited by the broken left elbow that forced him to miss seven weeks early last season, committed himself to intense stretching and massage therapy for the first time this offseason. He credits that for how good his arm has felt since Spring Training. And now is when he's starting to gradually build strength back through weight training, which is starting to show up on the mound.

"I knew it was going to come; it was just a matter of when," Weaver said. "I've been working really hard to try to get back to where I know I can be. It's going to take a little bit of time, but over the last four starts, it's felt like it's coming back. I've seen signs of it at times, but today, I think it's the best I've felt all year. Hopefully, I can keep this going and keep working hard to get back to where I need to be."

Weaver was hurt only by Yunel Escobar's fifth-inning solo homer and James Loney's seventh-inning RBI single, on a line drive that sailed just over Collin Cowgill's head in right field. Rays starter Chris Archer -- with a 5.16 ERA heading in -- walked five batters, but didn't give up a run in his 5 2/3-inning outing as the Angels were shut out for the first time this season.

His biggest pitch came in the fifth, on the low, 1-0 slider that forced Pujols to hit a two-hopper to the left side that almost went foul and wound up stranding the bases loaded.

"This game is a game of inches," Archer said. "That's a cliché, but that ball hit the chalk and [Evan Longoria] got it as it hit the chalk and he was able to step on the bag at third. An inch left, it's a foul ball and we're talking about a totally different situation."

And that's just how it's gone for Pujols lately.

"I almost look at it like golf," he said. "You go and shoot a nice round -- 73, 75 -- and then you go play two days later and you shoot 90 or 100 and you're like, 'What the heck? What's going on?' It's just something to keep you humble every day, I guess. When you think you have everything figured out, you don't. But I know that at the end of the season, things always even out."

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