- Mark Saxon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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ANAHEIM -- The Los Angeles Angels have been stealthily climbing the power rankings, one winning series at a time. The Texas Rangers have been making their mark with a bit more noise, ransacking an easy stretch of their schedule and piling up wins for a couple of weeks.
One trend has to give. The two teams meet at Angel Stadium for a three-game set that starts Tuesday. While the Angels aren't quite close enough to finish it in first place, they're well aware of the stakes. The last thing they want is for Texas to leave town with its confidence swollen and with plenty of padding for its lead.
"We've been playing pretty well ourselves," Angels center fielder Torii Hunter said. "It's going to be a battle, some great baseball games. We have to go out and execute. If we do what we have to do, I think we'll be fine."
The Rangers have won 13 of their past 14 games. They're riding the streaking bat of Josh Hamilton, who had a 20-game hitting streak entering Sunday, and the steady bat of ex-Angel Vladimir Guerrero, who looks like a bona fide MVP candidate once again. They have an impressive mix of steady veterans, including third baseman Michael Young, and flashy young talent like closer Neftali Feliz.
The Angels' progress has been slower, but -- viewed from afar -- no less impressive. They're 22-9 since May 25. They have won eight of their past 10 series. Over the course of five weeks, they went from being one of the least-consistent teams in the league to being steady winners.
Angels fans have seen it before. If their team just continues to play steadily, they could count on an August fade from the Rangers. In conversations with Angels players and coaches, though, there is a sense that this could be a different opponent. Texas hasn't had this kind of pitching as long as anyone can remember. With Elvis Andrus at shortstop, they also have one of the most impermeable defenses in baseball.
"They put it all together in terms of holding teams down on the defensive side and, when you look at their lineup, they have an offense that's unforgiving," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said.
The Angels have to ask themselves if their talent measures up to that of Texas, because eventually young teams figure out how to win. Even as the Angels have gradually turned their season around, the front office has continued to aggressively pursue trade talks for a bat. But Sunday's 10-3 victory over the Rockies was one of those games that argued against it.
Mike Napoli, who's filling in at first base for the Angels since Kendry Morales is injured, hit a decisive three-run home run that shook rookie pitcher Jhoulys Chacin from his groove. Angels third basemanBrandon Wood, the incredible shrinking prospect for the last few months, bashed an eighth-inning knockout grand slam and has looked more and more confident of late.
Scioscia spent the better part of his pregame media time talking -- in utterly vague terms -- about the possibility of finding Morales' replacement in the trade market. He was asked after the game if Napoli might be the best man for the job, after all.
Napoli's home run was his 13th this year. He has long been viewed as a 30-homer threat given enough at-bats. Scioscia said he'd like to see Napoli improve his RBI rate. He has 31. But he acknowledged that the converted catcher has the potential to put up big numbers.
"He certainly has the big bat that could fill that void, and we'll just see how things keep going," Scioscia said.
Wood has had to adapt to a bench role since Erick Aybar got healthy, but the third-base job is far from settled. Wood got the start Sunday because journeyman Kevin Frandsen jammed his thumb in Saturday night's game. If Wood can snap out of his season-long funk, there's no reason he couldn't reclaim the starting third-base job.
First, the Angels just want to see him get a semblance of confidence back. He took good swings all afternoon, narrowly missing an extra-base hit in the third, when Ryan Spilborghs tracked down his deep fly up against the wall. In the eighth, he hit a hanging breaking ball deep into the left-field stands. Wood is batting .176.
"It felt really good. I haven't put a swing on a ball like that the entire year," Wood said. "I felt good coming into today. It gave me some time to think and I was able to come in and play worry-free baseball."
The Angels bid a sad farewell to interleague play. They went 11-7 versus the NL this year and have won 25 of their past 36 interleague games.
By the numbers
Napoli's home run was the 79th of his career, in his 433rd major league game. That puts him close to some fairly elite company. If Napoli homers at least once in his next 17 games, he'll be one of four Angels to have hit 80 homers by his 450th game.
Quote of the day
"I'm a company man. Whatever they want to do, I know they're going do the right thing. My opinion means nothing." -- Hunter on the possibility of a trade.
The Angels are off Monday before playing a three-game series with the first-place Texas Rangers. It is the last open date before the All-Star break, which begins July 12.
The Angels have played the Rangers just twice so far this year. They were swept in a two-game series in Arlington May 17-18.
Tuesday marks the return of slugger Vladimir Guerrero, who ranks in the top 10 in the AL in batting average (.326), home runs (15) and RBIs (60).
"He left a huge footprint here on the field, with our fans and with our organization," Scioscia said. "I think we're all happy Vlad's having a rebound year. We're not real happy it's with a team in our division."
Guerrero is the Angels' career leader in batting average (.319), slugging percentage (.546) and OPS (.927). He signed with the Rangers in January after the Angels had committed to Hideki Matsui to be their designated hitter.
Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.