Angels-Rangers rivalry set to percolate

Angels-Rangers rivalry set to percolate

Angels-Rangers rivalry set to percolate
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Yankees and Red Sox go together as passionately as the Hatfields and McCoys, a generational rivalry that is deep and personal, passed on from parents to children for decades.

The Angels and Rangers are really just getting started. They can't possibly measure up to the profound feelings the New York and Boston organizations and their fans have for each other. That is renewed every summer with games that seem to last forever, each pitch, each swing carrying meaning.

In time, however, there are signs that Texas and Los Angeles of Anaheim can reach the pitch and volume of the Big East titans.

What we have are two franchises that are determined to do everything possible to grab hold of the West the way the Yankees and Red Sox have competed for Eastern supremacy for decades.

The arrivals of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson have made the Angels one of the Major Leagues' most intriguing teams in 2012, while the Rangers -- refusing to stand pat as the two-time American League champions -- added the game's most fascinating new figure in Yu Darvish, who already is turning heads in camp with his dazzling array of pitches.

"We were on top [winning the AL West for three consecutive seasons] and they pushed us away and took it from us," Angels clubhouse leader Torii Hunter said. "We're going to do everything we can to get it back. This is going to be fun -- for us and the fans.

"We think we've improved a whole lot with Albert, C.J. and LaTroy [Hawkins], but they're the [league] champs until somebody knocks them off. That's our mission. We're hungry."

The Rangers are keenly aware of everything the Angels do, and vice versa. Texas' commitment to Darvish was an obvious attempt to upgrade the one area where the Angels appeared to have a distinct advantage with its superior rotation featuring Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Wilson (the former Texas ace) and Ervin Santana, with Jerome Williams the likely fifth starter.

If Darvish is as good as the Rangers think he is and former closer Neftali Feliz adapts to the move to starting, Texas' rotation will be deeper than that of the Angels -- and one that could potentially be close to as good.

Team president Nolan Ryan, arguably the greatest of all the Angels, is now doing everything in his power to keep the Rangers a step ahead of his former club in concert with general manager Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington.

Reluctant to place too much emphasis on the Angels, the Texas brass insists that it enters every offseason determined to improve the club -- even after it came within one strike of the franchise's first World Series championship.

"Our goal this offseason was to get better," Daniels said. "We had a plan and we followed through with it. We know the Angels are a good organization with outstanding people. We were just focused on what we were trying to do."

The Angels, who beat the Giants to win the World Series in manager Mike Scioscia's third season in 2002, reached the postseason five times in six years from 2004-09 as the Rangers were enduring a 10-year postseason drought.

But all that has changed with Texas seizing control of the division the past two seasons and carrying it all the way to the big show, falling to the Giants in 2010 and to the Cardinals in last October's Fall Classic.

Head-to-head, in games that had a playoff feel, the Rangers had the upper hand these past two seasons, but not by a significant margin. The Angels have been a combined 16-22 against Texas, but a last-series sweep in 2011 when the Angels were deploying a patchwork lineup contributed to the Rangers' 12-7 edge.

In any case, falling 10 games behind Texas those past two seasons left a very bad taste in the mouth of Angels owner Arte Moreno. With new general manager Jerry Dipoto springing into action and refusing to concede anything, the Angels produced a stunning and historic Dec. 8 spending spree in landing Pujols and Wilson, the most coveted player and pitcher in free agency.

"Obviously, they've done very well for themselves," Dipoto said of the Rangers. "They're the two-time defending AL champs, and we understand that we're in a division that has the two-time defending best team in the American League. Our job is to go in there as a team and compete with that club, night in and night out -- even on the days we're not playing them."

They will go mano a mano 19 times in 2012, but they don't meet until May 11 when a three-game series unfolds in Arlington.

The first showdown in Anaheim arrives on June 1 with another three-game set. By then, it should be clear how Pujols and Wilson have impacted their new club and how Darvish has adapted to his new environment after dominating hitters in Japan.

There is no confrontation in the game this season more compelling than Pujols vs. Darvish, but both athletes have remained low key about it in the early stages of Spring Training.

They met twice during the winter, and Pujols was impressed with Texas' new pitcher, calling Darvish a "very nice guy." Darvish deferred comment, calling it a personal matter.

It is about to get a whole lot more personal.

If the clubs are running neck and neck down the stretch, as most insiders anticipate, their two final confrontations could have as much impact as anything the Red Sox and Yankees can deliver for their impassioned followers. A three-game series opening on Sept. 18 in Anaheim will be followed by a Sept. 28-30 set in Arlington, the finale of the regular season.

Along with the Pujols vs. Darvish dynamic, we also have Wilson matched against the team that replaced him with Darvish. Wilson vs. Josh Hamilton -- and Mike Napoli -- will be just as fascinating as Albert vs. Yu.

Napoli, who shared the catching duties with best buddy Jeff Mathis when the Angels were ruling the division, has found an exciting new life in Texas. Napoli is coming off a huge offseason and would have been the likely World Series MVP if the Rangers had gotten that elusive last out in Game 6 in St. Louis.

There is an edge in the voices of Napoli and Wilson when they're asked questions specific to their former teams, suggesting the fires already are smoldering in the two clubhouses.

The Rangers "aren't worried about the Angels," Washington said. "We're only worried about ourselves. We're only concerned with the Texas Rangers and being as good as we can be."

They shouldn't be too worried about that. With talent and depth everywhere, they're going to be good. The only question is whether they can be great -- and climb that final late October hurdle.

Scioscia defers all spring inquiries about other clubs, holding to his mission statement of concerning himself only with his own club.

The Angels have much to prove, starting with their ability to surround Pujols with enough juice in a lineup that fell silent far too often in 2011 behind a superb pitching staff. A return to form of Kendrys Morales after missing 1 2/3 seasons would be huge, but nobody knows if the switch-hitter can recapture his form on an ankle twice repaired by surgery.

"I think we're pretty even right now, I'd say," Angels center fielder Peter Bourjos said. "It's just a matter of going out and proving that we can go out and play with them. They've proven that they can beat us the last couple of years, and now we've got Pujols and C.J. Wilson. I think we just have to go out and prove that we're just as good as them."

Hunter doesn't mind hiding his excitement over the prospect of the Rangers and Angels commanding national attention -- perhaps even stealing some of the thunder from the East Coast megapowers.

"It's cool, man, because here in the West, we get left out, whether it's the Rangers or the Angels," Hunter said. "We kind of get left out because of the beasts of the East."

The closest the two AL West clubs have had to a race of national interest was 1998. Tied heading into the second-to-last series, the Rangers took control with a three-game sweep in Anaheim.

What we have now is something new and fresh and incredibly appealing. The nation is keenly aware of the two powers out west, both owning the resources and commitment to hold center stage all summer long, into autumn.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.