AL West race starting to heat up

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It was just three weeks ago that the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels -- predicted by many as one of the top baseball rivalries this season -- met for the first time in 2012.

Much has changed in those three short weeks.

The Rangers won two of three over the Angels in Arlington in mid-May, taking a five-game lead in the division over the Oakland A's. The Angels dropped to 15-20 and were eight games back of the Rangers, sitting in the American League West cellar.

Now, as the two teams get set for the first series of 2012 in Anaheim, the Angels have played their way back to a .500 record. They are 5½ games behind the Rangers and sit alone in second place. Los Angeles just had its eight-game winning streak snapped by the New York Yankees on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Rangers have played .500 baseball since the Angels left town (8-8).

"I think we're going to see the team we originally expected to see," Rangers outfielder David Murphy said. "It's not that they're playing over their skis by any means right now. They've got the talent to do it. Teams go through rough spots through the course of the year, but when you start off on the wrong foot, especially after you spend a lot of money, people are going to think it's the end of the world, and a lot of people are going to write them off pretty quickly.

"We knew that wasn't going to happen. We knew they were going to be a challenge to us all year long, and this is only the second series that we're playing with them. There's going to be some good baseball over the weekend."

Let's look at some of the things that have changed since the last time these two teams met:

Albert returns

Albert Pujols was not, well, Albert Pujols to start the season. He managed just two hits in the series with the Rangers and left Arlington batting .196 with just one homer and 12 RBIs in 34 games.

It didn't take him long after the Rangers series to start hitting the ball. Since then, Pujols is hitting .329 with seven homers and 16 RBIs in 17 games. He's pushing his average toward .250 after his slow beginning.

"We respect him," manager Ron Washington said. "We'll try not to let him beat us. If we can pitch to him, we will. If we need to work around him, we will."

Pujols has also been a much better hitter at home in 2012, batting .278 with four homers in Anaheim as opposed to .216 on the road.

Injured starters

Both teams have had to make rotation changes in the past three weeks. A sprained ligament in the right elbow has Neftali Feliz sidelined until probably the All-Star break, and Scott Feldman has taken his place. When Roy Oswalt is ready to go -- maybe around June 20 -- he'll take that spot.

Angels ace Jered Weaver went on the disabled list this week with a strained muscle in his lower back and will miss a few starts. Weaver, who would have pitched Sunday, has a 3.37 career ERA versus Texas. Instead, Garrett Richards was called up and gets the start against Matt Harrison.

Pitching numbers

Three weeks ago, the Angels' pitching staff sported a 4.02 ERA, were 5-for-11 on save opportunities and had a bullpen that was 1-6 with a 4.70 ERA.

The Angels had already changed closers before they got to Texas, but it seems that the relievers are finally settling in, going 3-2 with a 2.41 ERA -- and 4-for-5 in save opportunities -- since leaving Arlington.

Overall, the Angels have had a 2.95 ERA over the past three weeks. That's a big improvement.

The Rangers' bullpen, outside of Yoshinori Tateyama's rough third inning during Wednesday's 21-8 loss to Seattle, continues to pitch well. But the starting pitching has struggled.

Derek Holland gave up eight runs in the second inning of Wednesday's blowout loss and watched his ERA jump a full run to over 5.00. Harrison, who starts Sunday, has been a bit up and down, though he seems to have steadied himself lately. Yu Darvish, slated to start opposite C.J. Wilson on Saturday, has had command issues in his past two starts and hasn't been able to pitch as deep into games as he'd like, though he still has seven wins and a 3.25 ERA.

Hit parades

After taking two of three from the Angels, the Rangers were hitting .296 and scoring 5.9 runs per game, helping the team jump out to a 23-12 start.

During this 8-8 run in the past 16 games, however, the Rangers are hitting .271 and averaging 5.3 runs per game.

The Angels' bats have picked up, especially in the past nine games. After averaging just 3.6 runs per game in the first 43 games, they have averaged 5.0 runs in the past nine games, during which they went 8-1.

Besides Pujols, Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout are hitting the ball well. Kendrys Morales is batting nearly .300, and Howie Kendrick has had some big games.

Josh Hamilton, who has battled an upper respiratory infection, is hitting .300 with only three home runs -- certainly off his crazy pace set in mid-May -- since the Angels left town May 13.

"They're not going to go away," Hamilton said of the Angels. "They've been a leader in the division for a long time. They've got good talent and talent coming up, so you know they're going to be around. It's going to be fun going in there and playing them in their home park."