LAA@DET: Pujols hits home run No. 498, a solo shot

WASHINGTON -- Nationals Park could see some history made over the next few nights with the Angels and Albert Pujols in town for a three-game series starting on Monday night. Pujols entered the series with 498 career home runs, two shy of the 500 milestone.

Nats manager Matt Williams, whose playing career overlapped with Pujols', called the Angels' first baseman "one of the great hitters of this generation," but not because of his ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark.

"What sticks out is his ability to hit, so I would refer to him as a well-over-.300 hitter with power," Williams said. "Those guys are unique, really unique, because generally your sluggers, the guys who have the ability to hit the ball over the fence, are more free swingers. But Albert's been, since the day he got to the big leagues, the consummate hitter, first and foremost."

When Pujols burst on to the Major League scene in 2001 with the Cardinals, taking National League Rookie of the Year Award honors, Williams was in his third-to-last season and on his way to a World Series title with the D-backs. In fact, Arizona beat St. Louis, 3-2, in that year's NL Division Series.

Even at that early stage in Pujols' career, Williams knew he was seeing something special.

"The ability to drive the ball the other way with power, that's huge," he said. "I think, for me, Albert sat in the middle of that Cardinals lineup, and that kind of became their identity, how Albert went about it. I think it still continues to today. You look at the Cardinals lineup, and their ability to drive in runs and hit with runners in scoring position is off the charts. I think it started with [Pujols] and the ability to go about doing it."

After a difficult 2013, Pujols is off to a hot start in his third year with the Angels, entering the series opener batting .280/.349/.587 and tying for the league lead with six home runs to put him on the doorstep of the big 500. So even though Mike Trout has been the Angels' most potent producer for the past few years, Williams still looks at Pujols as a huge threat.

"His track record dictates that he is that guy," Williams said. "They also have another guy [Trout], so it doesn't make it easy to make those types of decisions. You just hope that he hits with the bases empty all the time. That's the best-case scenario. He's one of the best hitters of this generation, and he will go down in the history books as that."

Harper not interested in Trout comparisons

Trout and Harper play catch in Arizona Fall League

WASHINGTON -- The comparisons between the Angels' Mike Trout and the Nationals' Bryce Harper come naturally. A lot of people make them, but Harper isn't one of them.

"Not at all, because I know I'm a damn good player, and he is, too," Harper said before the Nationals opened their three-game series against the Angels on Monday. "We're going to roll through baseball over the next 20 years, hopefully, and make people turn their heads."

Trout certainly has. Harper's former teammate in the Arizona Fall League and fellow 2012 Rookie of the Year Award winner has cemented himself as one of the game's top players, batting .323/.414/.563 with 62 home runs and 84 stolen bases over the past three years. He's earned back-to-back runner-up finishes in the American League Most Valuable Player Award voting.

Harper, more than a year younger, has experienced a somewhat bumpier road but still provided production rare for such a young hitter. Since arriving in 2012, he's batted .273/.353/.477 with 43 homers and 30 steals, in 80 fewer games than Trout.

Is it even fair to draw a comparison between the two?

"I really don't care," Harper said. "I couldn't care less about opinions. Everybody's got one. If they like him, they like him. If they like me, they like me. If they like both of us, then they know the game. And if they don't, then they're crazy."

The relationship between the two is not tense. It developed when they shared an outfield with the Scottsdale Scorpions during the 2011 Arizona Fall League and has continued since with occasional text messages. When Harper crushed a home run into the third deck at Nationals Park earlier this season, Trout said he sent him a joking text asking if he got jammed on the pitch.

"He's a great player, a great person, has a great family," said Harper, who visited briefly with Trout on the field hours before Monday night's game. "He's one of the best players, if not the best player in baseball. He's a lot of fun to watch."

Count Pujols among Harper's admirers

MIA@WSH: Harper goes first to third on a groundout

WASHINGTON -- The first time Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper met Angels first baseman Albert Pujols was at the 2010 All-Star Game in Anaheim. Pujols signed a bat for Harper during that time.

Four years later, Pujols called Harper and Angels outfielder Mike Trout two of the most exiting players in the game of baseball.

"I'm pretty excited to see [Harper], to go against him in this series and see what he can do," Pujols said.

A lot of people are making a big deal about Harper and Trout facing each other for the first time. Experts have compared the two players ever since they entered the league full-time in 2012.

Asked if it's fair to compare the two players, Pujols said, "My advice as a veteran player is just play the game the way they know how to play it, and try to not get caught up too much into the media [hype]. … That's extra pressure you don't need. This game is already tough enough. Like I told Mike, he has to be himself, play the game he knows how to play. Don't try to do extra things special, because the normal things that you do are pretty special already."

Pujols was aware that Harper was taken out of the game for not hustling on Saturday against the Cardinals. Pujols said the same thing happened to him when he was a member of the Cardinals.

"[Then-manager] Tony [La Russa] took me to the side and told me, 'That's not me.' Sometimes you get caught up," Pujols said. "… [Harper] respects the game so much. He was probably one of the guys that was more down, because that's not him. It teaches you not to take this game for granted."

Pujols said every player goes through a point where they don't feel like going all out in a game.

"Everybody -- whether you are in Little League, high school or college -- we have all gone through that," Pujols said. "Hopefully, it doesn't happen to him again. Sometimes, you go through some things or you have an injury to the point where you have to lay back. When you hit a ground ball and you are going to be out by 30 feet, why are you going to try to bust your butt when you are hurt?

"There are a lot of things that could happen. I don't know his situation, but I know people are trying to make a big deal about it. … When you play 162 games, those are things that are going to happen. You just need to make sure that you clear your mind and be ready to play the next series or the next game.

"[Harper] admitted that he was wrong. He knows it. I'm pretty sure the next day he went out there and busted his butt and ran the bases hard."

Eckstein has fond memories of time with Nats

"I have nothing but fond memories [of the Nats]," said Rick Eckstein.

WASHINGTON -- Angels player information coach Rick Eckstein said he doesn't have any bitterness toward the Nationals, who relieved him of his duties as hitting coach last July and replaced him with Rick Schu. Why? He said the Nationals gave him the chance to be with a team that went from a last place to a National League East winner in 2012.

"They gave me a chance to be a big league hitting coach," Eckstein said "Obviously, there was some disappointment in '13, but all in all, I have nothing but fond memories. I think anybody in your life that gives you a chance to achieve your goals, no matter what happens, you look back and say, 'Thank you.' I got an opportunity."

Eckstein has the distinction of coaching both Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper and Angels outfielder Mike Trout. He called them electric players who have the passion to be the best that they can be.

"Unbelievable talent in every facet of the game. They show up ready to go. They always try to prepare themselves," Eckstein said. "Bryce was great during the times I was able to be with him. I have fond memories of knowing him.

"Getting to know Mike now, [he is] another tremendous talent with all the ability in the world. [He has] the makeup, the character, the camaraderie with his teammates, respect from his teammates, the influence over his teammates. He makes you better. When you stand next to him, you feel like a better player."

Eckstein is in uniform before the game. He gives the Angels information about the opposing team before sitting in the stands, observing the game and getting information about opponents. 

"Having [worked in Washington] for almost five years and now coming back, there are a lot of great people. I've been able to say hello to a lot of the guys from the past."

Worth noting

• Nats right-hander Doug Fister is slated to throw about 45 pitches over three innings in a simulated game on Tuesday. Fister, on the disabled list with a lat strain, threw his first simulated game last Thursday, working two innings.

• Williams said that catcher Wilson Ramos, on the disabled list with a broken hamate bone in his left hand, is on schedule or maybe a little ahead of schedule in his recovery. Ramos suffered the injury in the season opener on March 31, and after having surgery, was expected to miss four to five weeks. According to Williams, Ramos has been hitting balls off a tee with a modified bat that has the weight taken out of it, and is trying to get his hand strength back.

"They take the [hamate] bone out, the bone's still raw, so it's really nothing wrong with him at this point," Williams said. "It's more pain tolerance and stuff like that, but at least he's got a bat in his hands and he's able to grip stuff and start to do some strength stuff, so it's good."

Williams also said Ramos has been working hard to stay in shape during his DL stint but likely will need plenty of at-bats during a Minor League rehab assignment before he returns.