In Arlington, Angels have much to prove
Weaver matches up with Lee in opener of four-game series
After the Angels took two of three from the Rangers in Anaheim shortly before the All-Star break, with ace Jered Weaver wrapping it up on July 1 with a 2-1 decision over C.J. Wilson, the defeated southpaw left no doubt where his heart was -- deep in Texas.
"We're a better team -- 100 percent," Wilson said. "When we play up to our capabilities, it might not be that close.
"We have a better balance to our team. They have good pitching, but their offense is, like, I don't know. We have more wins. It's pretty simple. I'd rather take our offense. I'd rather take our defense. I'd much rather have our bullpen."
Angels fans might not agree with Wilson, but you can't fault a guy for being honest.
Heading into a four-game series at Rangers Ballpark with a five-game deficit, the Angels know they have some proving to do -- to the first-place Rangers, to the baseball world at large and even to themselves.
Are they up to the task of keeping Texas within shouting distance in the American League West, a division the Angels have called their own for three consecutive seasons and five of the past six?
"It's huge," said Weaver, who draws southpaw Cliff Lee in a series-opening duel of aces on Thursday night. "We've been sitting four, five games back for a while now.
"You don't have to scoreboard-watch when you play those guys. When you're playing those guys, you pick up a game or lose one. Simple as that."
With former Angels Vladimir Guerrero and now Bengie Molina fortifying their lineup and enhancing their defense, the Rangers have taken flight. Josh Hamilton has gone off the charts, making a legitimate Triple Crown run, and Michael Young is a leader and clutch hitter with few equals.
Having won both ends of a two-game set at Texas in May, the Rangers lead the season series, 3-2, after taking it last season, 11-7. That ended a run of four consecutive season series claimed by the Angels.
In contrast to Wilson, Rangers All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler is throwing down the respect card heading into the series.
"The Angels have won, what, five of the last six [division titles]?" Kinsler said. "They're definitely the team to beat until proven otherwise."
Hitting in the No. 3 slot between Young and Guerrero, with Hamilton fifth, Kinsler is in a prime position to do some damage.
"With Vlad and Josh," Kinsler said, "it's pick your poison. Big right-handed bat, big left-handed bat. They're really tough.
"Vlad's had a huge impact in the clubhouse on the Latin players and all of us. He's always having fun, doing things right. Same goes for [former Angels reliever] Darren Oliver. He doesn't say a lot, but he gets his work done and gets outs whenever you need them -- sixth, seventh, eighth."
All-Star closer Neftali Feliz blows hitters away with his 98- to 99-mph heater. The Angels have been getting quality work from their closer, Brian Fuentes, but their bullpen hasn't been as consistent overall as the Rangers' collection of arms.
The addition of Lee, who gets deep in games, should help keep the bullpen -- with former Angel Darren O'Day also in a prominent setup role -- fresh down the stretch.
Torii Hunter, the Angels' All-Star center fielder and leader, stresses that it's time to kick it into high gear or risk the consequences.
"In the past," Hunter said, "we were the team everyone was chasing. Now, we're the ones trying to catch up, so we can't afford to be making mistakes.
"Sometimes, teams with a lead can get comfortable, but they know they can't get too comfortable. They know what we've done before, and what we're capable of doing. We're the team that's been winning for a long time, that has history. We're playing well, but they've been playing better. We have to change that."
Hunter knows the game inside-out, and he sees all of Texas' many assets lined up in a deadly row.
"They've got the best offensive numbers in Major League Baseball, and they added Cliff Lee to a strong pitching staff," Hunter said. "They're good."
After Weaver and Lee go head to head, lefties Wilson and Joe Saunders will duel on Friday night. It will be Scott Feldman hosting Ervin Santana on Saturday night, with Tommy Hunter and the Angels' Sean O'Sullivan wrapping it up on Sunday evening.
"We can put them farther behind or they can catch up to us," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "It's a huge series. We'll know where they are, and they'll know where we are. I hope the stadium is packed. I hope our fans bring their kids, uncles and grandfathers. I hope they'll all come out. It should be fun."
Young, the catalyst at third base, understands the stakes.
"Once you get into the second half, every game has significance, no matter who you are playing," Young said. "It could be teams within our division or outside the division -- they are all important."
Angels manager Mike Scioscia is always reluctant to attach high priority to games or series before mid-to-late August.
"You're looking at midterm report cards now," Scioscia said. "There's going to be a time when you're looking at the standings, juggling the rotation, looking at getting maybe two extra outs from a reliever.
"July  is a little early for that. The challenge is there. We're going to get after it. The best way through it isn't to squeeze the bat harder or throw harder."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.