- Mark Saxon, ESPN Staff Writer
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Mike Napoli turned around one of Neftali Feliz's fastballs and sent it soaring toward the patch of grass beyond the center-field wall. On a typical muggy night around here, that ball is gone. In a day game, it's halfway up the hill.
But after pregame thunderstorms, a cold front settled into this part of Texas on Monday evening, and Napoli's drive died at the wall in Julio Borbon's glove. Feliz chuckled a little with relief before he struck out Bobby Abreu on a 97 mph fastball to close out the Texas Rangers' 4-3 win over the Los Angeles Angels.
The Angels don't find it all that amusing to be chasing this talented young team that sits atop their division. They have owned the AL West for the better part of the past decade, but it's becoming unclear whether they have the legs to chase these guys down anymore.
Monday was a shaky first step toward renewing a rivalry that for most of 2009 tilted heavily in Texas' favor. The Angels lost nine of their first 12 games to the Rangers last year. It wasn't until they had sewed up another division banner by September that the young Rangers seemed to give in and collapse.
The Angels know what they're up against. They might no longer be the most talented team in their division. As young as Texas is, each month that goes by figures to be another step up the learning curve for the Rangers. That could spell serious trouble for the Angels, who now trail Texas by 3½ games.
On Monday the Angels were kept in their place by the Rangers' 23-year-old left-handed pitcher, Derek Holland (2-0). They saw the Rangers' 21-year-old shortstop, Elvis Andrus, make one of the most spectacular plays they had ever witnessed -- throwing out Torii Hunter after diving into shallow left field. Then they watched as Feliz, 22, entered the game and ended it on 10 virtually invisible pitches.
"As billed, they're a deep lineup, they've got a strong defensive club out there and they're pitching really well, too," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "We know they're going to be there all year."
The only clear edge the Angels seem to have at the moment is the confidence that comes with experience and the swagger that comes with success. Until Texas proves it can close a team out over the long haul, nobody will take it seriously as an October threat. After the first of 19 games against the Rangers this year, the Angels were far from willing to call the Rangers the alpha males.
"They're a good team," Angels pitcher Scott Kazmir said. "I feel like we can get it done, though, that's for sure."
One also could argue that the Angels still have a slight talent edge in their starting rotation. The problem is that, for most of the season, it hasn't pushed its way forward. Lately, the Angels have been building a sturdier foundation, with improvement from some of their struggling starters. But Kazmir's seven innings Monday weren't as good as they looked.
Kazmir took a step forward in terms of sidestepping disaster and minimizing his pitch count, but his pitches were no more menacing than they had been in his previous six starts. The bottom line is he's 2-4 with a 6.51 ERA. Kazmir admitted he made no progress toward adopting the changes the Angels are urging on him, including a more over-the-top arm slot that they think could sharpen his slider and give his fastball extra zip.
Kazmir's fastball barely cracked 90 mph Monday. A few years ago, he brushed the mid-90s, and his slider was among the most devastating of any lefty's in the league. Where's that guy?
"Sometimes, I look up and I'm like, 'Wow, it's only 89?'" said Napoli, who was the Angels' catcher Monday. "It seems harder than that."
Kazmir struck out only four of the 30 batters he faced. The difference between Monday and his six previous starts was he threw a lot more strikes and was a little luckier. He walked only one batter, and the Angels turned double plays to get him out of two jams.
"He's certainly not where we hope he's going to get to," Scioscia said.
Vladimir Guerrero has 2,298 hits in a possibly Hall of Fame-worthy career. People tend to remember the majestic home runs and the doubles that rattled walls, but so many of them were of the kind that burned his former team Monday night.
Guerrero took his usual monster cut but made scant contact and sent a fly ball into shallow right field. Reggie Willits, playing deep, raced about 90 feet but glanced up to see whether he was about to be run over by Kendry Morales or Howie Kendrick, and the ball dropped for a double. That keyed a four-run Rangers third inning.
"That's him," Hunter said. "He hits the ball so hard sometimes, every time he swings, they kind of pause. When you're already playing a little deeper and you pause, you're not getting a good jump off Vladdy, because he swings so freakin' hard. It can kind of mess with you a little bit."
Willits said he thought he should have caught the ball.
"It definitely wasn't an easy play, but I feel if I wouldn't have taken my eye off it to see where they were, I would have had it," Willits said.
Guerrero went 2-for-4, but neither hit was particularly well struck. He eked a grounder through the right side in the fifth.
Catcher Jeff Mathis had the cast removed from his right wrist and has slowly resumed baseball activities. On Monday he played catch and said it felt "a little stiff," but the inflammation has remained in check.
Mathis could return by early June, which likely would be a boost to the Angels' pitchers. In the 89 innings he's caught, Angels pitchers have had a 4.55 ERA, and baserunners have attempted only four stolen bases. With Napoli, Angels pitchers have a 5.13 ERA, and runners have stolen 25 bases in 29 attempts.
Quote of the day
"That was sweet, the more I think about it. When you sit back, it was a hell of a play. I was safe, though." -- Hunter on Andrus' play.
Jered Weaver (4-2, 2.47 ERA) hardly deserved a loss in his past start, one of his best this year. Weaver struck out a career-high 12 Tampa Bay Rays, but the Angels' hitters were baffled by David Price. Weaver is one of the few Angels pitchers who have fared well against Texas. He's 4-3 with a 3.39 ERA against the Rangers in his career.
The Angels will face converted reliever C.J. Wilson (3-1, 1.48 ERA), who has been the Rangers' best starter this year. Wilson is second in the AL in ERA behind another Orange County native, Phil Hughes. All seven of his starts to open the season have been quality, setting a Rangers record. Wilson's biggest problem has been run support. The Rangers have scored one or no runs in four of his starts.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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