Angels will give Rangers a run in West

ARLINGTON, Texas -- It's difficult to glean much from an early-season division series, other than the opportunity to build a little momentum and the chance for fans (and media) to overreact to what is essentially the second mile of a 26-mile major league marathon.

But one thing does stick out from this three-game set in Arlington: The Los Angeles Angels aren't going to make it easy on the Texas Rangers to repeat as AL West champions.

The Angels took two out of three from Texas at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington and are one game ahead of the Rangers in the AL West. It's the first time the Rangers have been a full game back in the division since May 31, 2010.

Texas has now lost three consecutive series, winning the first game of each three-game set against the Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees and Angels, only to lose the final two games.

"We're a good team," Rangers veteran Michael Young said. "We're in every game. We're just not finding a way to break on through. We'll be fine. We'll keep pounding away."

Los Angeles won the rubber match Wednesday, 4-1, behind a sizzling performance by starter Jered Weaver, who earned his first complete game since 2009 and became the first pitcher to record five wins in his club's first 18 games since Dave Stewart did it for Oakland in 1990.

The Angels couldn't recover from some tough injuries and didn't have enough to really challenge the Rangers down the stretch in 2010. But early in 2011, there are signs that the Angels everyone is used to seeing -- the club that has good starting pitching, solid defense and timely hitting -- has returned after a one-year hiatus.

After all, this is the same organization that won three straight division titles before the Rangers took it away from them last year. They know what it takes to be in contention.

"They did have a little bit of a down year by their perspective last year, but year-in and year-out they've been solid," Rangers first baseman Mitch Moreland said. "That team is going to be a tough team. We're going to have to dig in just like we do anybody else."

The 1-2 punch of Dan Haren and Weaver, along with a revamped bullpen that has regrouped from a rough first week, and some nice hitting by the bottom part of the order has the Angels on a roll. They've won eight of their past nine to take over the division lead.

Add it all up and right now the Angels are playing better baseball than the Rangers. But that doesn't mean very much in April. These teams play each other another 16 times this season, and most are likely to be close affairs. In fact, the division could come down to the final three games of the regular season between the two teams in Anaheim in late September.

The Angels could be even more dangerous when they get Kendrys Morales and Joel Pineiro back. And how much better would they be if Vernon Wells didn't start the season 4-for-40 and if Torii Hunter wasn't hitting .208?

Of course, the same can be said for the Rangers. Barring any setbacks, Josh Hamilton should return to the lineup in June. That means he'll miss just three more games against the Angels, giving him time to make a mark against a chief rival. Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus haven't found their stride. Kinsler had two strikeouts on Wednesday and is hitting .200. Andrus was 2-for-4 to raise his average to .231. That's not a lot of production from the top of the lineup. Both will improve and so will the overall offensive production.

The Rangers also are dealing with a bullpen that still has questions. Darren O'Day allowed a run and hit two batters Wednesday as he continues to try to find his command. Manager Ron Washington is still figuring out how best to use his bullpen in late-inning setup situations and who might best be able to handle those jobs.

"All I can do is keep giving them the ball and pretty soon it will click," Washington said. "They are capable."

Despite all that, the Rangers sit at 11-7, one of the best records in the American League after 18 games.

"We're only in April," Washington said. "There's no need to panic. I know it feels like June or July, but it's April."

Washington can point to last year as a reminder. Through 18 games in 2010, the Rangers were 8-10 and in last in the AL West by three games. We all know how things ended up.

The Rangers' off day comes at a good time. The club seems a bit sluggish after a long road trip. They have seven more games on this homestand before heading off on their first West Coast trip.

"We'll keep grinding and start to play better," Nelson Cruz said. "It's very early in the season."

In other words: Plenty of time to pick up the pace and be sure they're in position for a finishing kick in September.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter.