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Must C Call: Pujols avoids tag at the plate

CINCINNATI -- Thursday's game against the Reds, an eventual 5-4 loss at Great American Ball Park, started and finished quite fittingly for the Angels: Joe Blanton's very first pitch went out for a home run, and Josh Hamilton's final swing resulted in a game-ending strikeout.

Home runs have always been a part of Blanton's game, and it was no different in his Angels debut, when he served up three of them -- and almost four -- while giving up five runs (four earned) in a five-inning outing.

Strikeouts, meanwhile, were a major reason the Angels dropped two of three in this Opening Series. They whiffed 36 times against the Reds, breaking the previous club record of 35 for a three-game set.

"It wasn't like guys were going there 1-2-3," Hamilton disputed, after starting his Angels career 1-for-12 with six strikeouts and two walks. "Guys were going deep in counts and making pitchers throw pitches. Their pitchers did a good job, for the most part."

And it was hard-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman who finished the job.

With the Angels down one in the top of the ninth, Mike Trout led off with a single, then advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt that Erick Aybar almost beat out for his fourth hit. Albert Pujols, who drove in two runs and hit a double, squared one up against the lanky left-hander but lined out hard to right fielder Jay Bruce.

Then came Hamilton, thrust into one of baseball's most uncomfortable situations -- batting left-handed against Chapman, whom he's never really seen outside of Spring Training.

"It doesn't look like 98, 99 [mph] -- I've faced guys who throw 94 and it looks harder than that -- but it just kind of comes out of nowhere," Hamilton said. "It's kind of weird. That makes it challenging.

"I couldn't figure out where his arm slot was. That's a problem. You just try to look in a general area."

Chapman, who limited lefty hitters to a .330 OPS last season, put Hamilton in an 0-2 hole. The Angels' right fielder then fouled off a 99-mph fastball, but swung through a 98-mph one on the outside corner to end the game. It was the Angels' ninth strikeout of the game, after 10 in a 5-4 loss on Wednesday night and 17 in Monday's Opening Day, 13-inning victory.

"We definitely have a power element that's going to show up this year, and there are some strikeouts in our lineup that goes hand in hand with some of the guys," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "But with our team speed, I think we have enough situational hitters throughout our lineup that hopefully we'll be able to get the power numbers we have and still be able to manufacture and do some things."

Blanton got, as he said, "ambushed" on his first pitch of the game -- a low fastball that Shin-Soo Choo hit into the seats in left-center field. With that, Blanton became the first Angels pitcher since Jason Dickson on Aug. 21, 1996 -- against Derek Jeter, in Dickson's Major League debut -- to give up a homer on his first pitch with the Angels.

Blanton gave up another one to lead off the second to Todd Frazier, who just missed his second by hitting one on the yellow line in the fourth, and then one more to Chris Heisey to drive in two in the fifth. When Blanton left, the Angels had a 5-3 deficit and he had become just the fourth Angels pitcher -- joining Chris Bootcheck (2003), Seth Etherton (2000) and George Witt (1962) -- to give up three or more long balls in his Angels debut.

Blanton ranked 12th in the Majors with 169 home runs allowed from 2005-12, even though he was limited to 41 1/3 innings with the Phillies in 2011. His 29 homers last year ranked second in the National League.

In short, home runs are part of who he is -- just like strikeouts will seemingly be part of the Angels' identity on offense.

You take the good with the bad.

"I'm going to keep throwing strikes, regardless of what they're hitting and how they're hitting," Blanton said. "Whatever pitch I happen to be throwing, I'm going to try to throw a quality strike. There's quality strikes and non-quality strikes. Two of the three [homers] weren't quality strikes, but sometimes that happens. Sometimes you'll get away with those when they pop those up, and sometimes you won't."

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