The Los Angeles Angels all acknowledge they're still mourning Tyler Skaggs' death, even if the relentless grind of the baseball schedule doesn't give them much time to do it.
Kevan Smith believes that pain contributes to the passion with which the Angels are climbing the standings without their teammate and friend.
Albert Pujols got three hits and drove in three runs, and the Angels remained unbeaten since the All-Star break with a 9-6 victory over the Houston Astros on Monday night.
Mike Trout didn't play due to a strained right calf, but Pujols picked up the slack with his first three-hit game since May 13 and the Angels took the series opener from the AL West leaders.
Andrelton Simmons also homered as Los Angeles rallied from an early three-run deficit and improved to 7-3 since Skaggs' death, including four straight home victories out of the break. The Angels (49-46) are three games above .500 for the first time since June 25, 2018.
"Skaggs is definitely smiling down on us right now," said Smith, who drove in three runs. "We're still grieving Skaggsy, and we miss him to death, but there's an incredible energy on this team. Everybody is just getting it done. We're just going out there and trying to have some fun."
Los Angeles even overcame a terrible start by rookie Griffin Canning, who walked six and threw four wild pitches while getting just four outs.
Five relievers combined for 7 2/3 resilient innings, with Taylor Cole throwing 3 1/3 innings of three-hit ball in his first appearance since combining with Félix Peña on their no-hitter in the Angels' cathartic 13-0 victory over Seattle last Friday. Justin Anderson (3-0) got the win, and Hansel Robles secured his 14th save.
"We don't really look at .500 as a goal," Angels manager Brad Ausmus said. "It's something you pass on the way to your goal."
Pujols had an RBI double in the fourth inning and a two-run single during the Angels' four-run fifth, and the 39-year-old slugger even scored twice with clever baserunning.
George Springer hit two homers for the Astros, who opened a four-game series with their third loss in five games.
Jose Altuve played shortstop for the first time in three years after a defensive switch in the late innings for the Astros, whose patchwork lineup hasn't hurt their cushion in the AL West yet.
"We had a lot of issues, from on the mound to throughout hitting, and to a couple of errors," Houston manager AJ Hinch said. "We had our opportunities, and we just didn't do much right."
Justin Upton and Pujols opened the fourth with doubles off Framber Valdez (3-6). Pujols eventually tagged up and scored on a sacrifice fly — no small feat for one of the slowest runners in baseball.
Valdez yielded six hits and seven runs — four earned — over four innings, failing to impress in his latest chance to secure a rotation spot.
"I feel disappointed right now," Valdez said through a translator. "It's not what I've been accustomed to. It's not what I did last year. You can't deny it's been tough."
Pujols came up with the bases loaded in the fifth and knocked a two-run single to right.
He singled again in the seventh, and then showed he still has wheels — or at least great baseball instincts. He went to third on Smith's double, and when Altuve bobbled the throw back to the infield, Pujols took off and slid home safely when Robinson Chirinos dropped the throw to the plate.
Canning's last start was July 4, and the rookie looked profoundly rusty. Just 20 of his 50 pitches were strikes.
Canning issued four consecutive two-out walks in the first inning with one wild pitch included. After escaping that jam, he gave up two walks and two singles with three wild pitches in the second, his deliveries bouncing all around home plate while Smith frantically tried to stop them.
ALBERT AND THE ASTROS
Pujols' double was the 651st of his career, tying him with Honus Wagner for eighth place in baseball history. Nap Lajoie is next with 654.
Pujols' single gave him 160 career RBIs against Houston, passing Tony Perez for the most against the Astros in major league history. Pujols already leads every opponent with 59 homers against Houston.
Astros: Carlos Correa and Aledmys Diaz began rehab assignments with Triple-A Round Rock. Correa has been out since May 27 with a broken rib, but could return next week.
Angels: Trout left Sunday's game after two innings, but the two-time AL MVP said he didn't think the injury was serious. An MRI exam Monday revealed what the Angels called "a small strain in his right calf." Trout hopes to play Tuesday. "I wanted to be out there, but the training staff didn't think it was a good idea," he said.
Andrew Heaney (1-3, 5.18 ERA) takes the mound for the Angels for the second time since the death of Skaggs, his best friend. Hinch said the Astros will call up a pitcher from the minors.