AL West games are doubly important

NEW YORK -- Elvis Andrus spoke for a lot of his teammates after the New York Yankees' 6-5 win over the Texas Rangers on Sunday.

"I want to go home," the Rangers shortstop said.

The Rangers went 4-5 on this first road trip of the season, losing Sunday's game late after the Yankees took the lead in a tie game in the eighth. Close calls were part of the story of the trip as the Rangers lost in walkoff fashion to the Tigers twice and closed a deficit late Saturday at Yankee Stadium only to see a late homer open the game back up.

Sunday's loss left the players quickly packing for home and disappointed they couldn't get out of the Big Apple with a series win.

"We were in all three games in Detroit," manager Ron Washington said. "We came here and played the Yankees tough, but they were able to get it done. We've been playing really well. I'd say that we're going to win a lot of ballgames if we keep playing like this."

What awaits the Rangers back home is a Los Angeles Angels team that has won five straight games and allowed just 10 runs in that stretch. The Angels have managed to tie Texas on top of the AL West, setting up an early series to decide the leader in the division.

"Bring it on," Washington said.

It's easy to get caught up in the bright lights of the palace that is Yankee Stadium and consider any game against the guys in pinstripes as a big one. But the reality is, for the Rangers to repeat as AL West champions and maybe have another opportunity to play the Yankees in the playoffs, they have to beat the Angels, Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners. Those are bigger games, even if they aren't played on the biggest stages.

"There aren't any more important games than division games," Rangers reliever Darren O'Day said. "It doesn't matter who it's against. You have to win the division to get in the postseason. You win one and put them one more back. It counts double. Those are games you want to win."

The Rangers face the Angels on Monday night as they begin a 10-game homestand, tied for their longest of the season. Texas will play AL West teams in 16 of the next 26 games, including nine of those at home. It's the first extended look at the division for the Rangers, who swept the Mariners during the first week of the season.

"I think everybody's getting their feet on the ground," Washington said Saturday. "Seattle is starting to win games. Oakland is playing better and Anaheim is matching us. There's some pitching in this division."

The Rangers will start to see some of that this week. They won't go up against the Angels' Dan Haren, but they will have to face Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver, who is 4-0 with a 1.30 ERA. Of course, the Rangers have showed they have arms too. The back end of their rotation, a huge question mark entering the season, has performed well early.

"It's still early, but they've done the job," general manger Jon Daniels said. "It's a long season, but we like what we've seen. Every game is important, but to win your division you have to beat the teams in your division."

Washington, Daniels and the Rangers as a team expect a tight race in the AL West. To win it, the Rangers must hold their own against divisional foes, even without Josh Hamilton in the lineup.

If the 2011 Rangers plan on following all or part of the 2010 blueprint to the AL West crown, they need to take advantage of these division games early in the season.

Last year, the Rangers were 14-7 against the AL West in April, May and June, helping them (along with a strong showing in interleague play) vault to the top spot in the division, a perch they never left.

Texas saved some of its best for the West. The club finished seven games above .500 in the division. It hit .270 against the Angels, Mariners and A's, the highest team batting average against any AL division. The Rangers hit 57 homers in 57 games against the division and had a .400 slugging percentage. On the mound, Texas sported a 3.27 ERA and held the opponents to a .240 average.

"We did what we needed to do," Washington said. "If you want to have an opportunity to win a division, you have to play well in the division. If you win most of your division games, you've got a good chance of winning."

The Rangers enter this stretch after a 10-5 start that has featured great starting pitching, a red-hot first week by the offense and the injury to Hamilton. But the club returns home after an inconsistent road trip and one in which the offense had some struggles and the bullpen couldn't close the door.

"I still think we're right where we want to be," outfielder David Murphy said. "We got off to a great start, and while we haven't played our best baseball on this trip, we're happy with where we are. Our pitchers have really performed. We're still trying to get to a place where we can be consistent as an offense."

The Rangers hit just .240 in April in 2010, by far the lowest average of any month last year. This April, they are hitting .258 as a team, a figure that has dropped thanks to a .241 average (71-for-294) on the just-completed nine-game road trip.

"Now you're at that time where you've played a few weeks and you've got to make some adjustments," Murphy said. "Our offense is still doing that. It was the same thing last year. As well as we hit all year, we weren't great in April. The best is yet to come. We want to play well against these divisional teams and show we belong on top."

They'll start that quest Monday night.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.