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Pujols cranks two-run shot for 18th of year

ANAHEIM -- The Angels have a long way to go before they can catch the Rangers, erase a deficit that once seemed insurmountable and win the American League West. But Sunday was a big step nonetheless.

Big because Dan Haren showed signs that he may be the Haren of old -- instead of just an old Haren -- by hurling six innings of two-run ball against one of baseball's toughest lineups.

Big because the offense had a balanced attack against the dominant Matt Harrison and a tough set of relievers, scoring early, adding on late and finishing with 15 hits.

Big because the Angels gained some precious ground on the two-time defending AL champs, moving five back of the Rangers -- and a half-game up on the surging Athletics -- after a 7-4 victory in the series finale.

The arduous baseball schedule allows little time for perspective and celebration. But after getting little from their rotation besides Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson lately, and making little progress in the division despite playing their best baseball over a two-month stretch, Sunday was one of those games to savor for the Angels.

A little more than usual, at least.

"Even if I wasn't pitching, today was a huge game for us, trying to take the series from them and keep pace with a lot of other teams that are playing well," Haren said, after successfully returning from his first trip to the disabled list. "I came into the game thinking it's the biggest game of the year. Really, I do that every start, but especially today."

Each of the first five hitters in the Angels' lineup -- Mike Trout, Torii Hunter, Albert Pujols, Mark Trumbo and Howie Kendrick -- finished with two hits. Trout scored a run for the 14th consecutive game to set an AL rookie and franchise record. Catcher Bobby Wilson homered, part of his first three-hit game since 2010. And Pujols hit his 18th homer of the year -- a seventh-inning two-run shot, giving the Angels a necessary cushion that came in handy after an adventurous ninth.

But Haren set the tone on Sunday and he could set the tone for the entire second half.

"He came at the right time," Pujols said. "We needed him really bad. Obviously, facing a tough lineup like the Rangers is not easy. But he was keeping those guys off balance pretty well."

Haren finally put pride aside after a rough outing in Cleveland on July 3, admitting that stiffness in his lower back had been bothering him since the start of the regular season and had contributed to a uncharacteristic 4.86 ERA in his first 17 starts.

Nineteen days and one rehab start later, Haren was back, with a new beard and the sense that his back woes were behind him.

He didn't dominate, but he pitched well. He pitched the way he's accustomed to.

"It wasn't like all of a sudden you went, 'Wow', with his stuff," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "His stuff was crisp, but his command was better. I think he had the ability to get that ball down in the zone, had the ability to get that ball glove side to righties, got the ball on the outside corner very nicely, and he pitched inside, too. His stuff was crisp, but that command is what really was impressive. And his split was there tonight, too."

Perhaps helped by the afternoon shadows, perhaps squeezed by an awfully tight strike zone, Haren scattered three hits and three walks and gave up only a Nelson Cruz two-run homer in a 95-pitch outing.

His back, he said, "feels good" now. Haren is still fighting mechanics with his fastball, which sat mostly in the upper-80s again, but said his "offspeed stuff is just night and day" and "the crispness of my pitches was definitely better."

"I think I'm only going to get better," he added.

That's music to the ears of the Angels, who are counting on Haren to heal the rotation woes that have hindered them and perhaps spare them from giving up a lot to acquire a starting pitcher before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline.

Haren has heard all that talk, about how the Angels need to address their rotation because he hasn't been good enough.

It makes him feel quite disrespected.

"I felt like I was kind of getting the short end of the straw," Haren said. "I've pitched through a lot of pain this year and I wasn't getting very good results. I could've made all my starts, and I tried to go on the DL to get myself better to make 12 good starts rather than 16 average starts. Here's one today, a good one, and hopefully there's 11 or 12 to go. And if I pitch to my capabilities, I think we'll be in a good spot."

From April 28 to the start of this weekend series, the Angels had the second-best record in the Majors and yet were only able to shave three off the nine-game deficit that at one point seemed insurmountable.

But they beat Texas on Friday (on a gritty start by ace Jered Weaver) and bounced back from a loss on Saturday (which featured the continued unraveling of Ervin Santana) to take two of three, with 10 games left.

Can they catch them?

"They have a great team, and we have a great team, too," Pujols said. "The last thing we want to do is get caught up in that. We're only five games out. Hey, if we win series, we're going to force them to win series, too. We're going to see them 10 more times, and there's going to be a lot of games left, a lot of great games that are going to happen between both of these ballclubs."

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