(Reuters) - Free-swinging Josh Hamilton provided the fireworks and pitcher Yu Darvish lit up the mound on a stormy evening in Texas as the Rangers thumped the Anaheim Angels 10-3 on Friday.
While thunder echoed above the Rangers Ballpark, Hamilton’s booming bat made the most noise in the arena as the Texas slugger cracked a pair of home runs to give him eight big blasts in five games.
Hamilton’s explosive night overshadowed a gritty display by expensive acquisition Darvish with the Japanese rookie sensation improving his record to 5-1.
Despite another extraordinary night at the plate, Hamilton was more interested in talking about his pitcher, who waited out a long rain delay to return to the mound and secure the win.
“I was proud of him (Darvish) coming back out there and just sticking it out and doing what you got to do,” Hamilton told reporters. “It says a lot to his team mates about him as player and a competitor.”
The first of 19 meetings this season between the American League West rivals expected to battle for the division crown promised a fascinating clash packed with intriguing sub-plots.
The game offered up something for every baseball taste, including a showdown between sluggers Hamilton and Albert Pujols, and a pitching duel between C.J. Wilson, who led the Texans to two World Series appearances before signing for Anaheim, and the man who replaced him in the Rangers rotation.
”The outside perception is (that this series is bigger than normal),“ Rangers manager Ron Washington said. ”But it’s just a day on the schedule and it happens to be the Angels.
“It’s not going to make us feel any different about the team we think we have if we lose the series.”
While Washington downplayed the evening’s significance, it is not hard to understand why the three-game series is completely sold out and has attracted national attention.
For nearly a decade, the rivals have dominated the division and both conducted off-season shopping sprees in an effort to maintain their supremacy.
Texas went “all in” and out-bid several teams for Darvish’s services while Anaheim opened up their wallet to sign Pujols, snaring the biggest free agent on the market with a staggering 10-year, $240 million deal.
The Rangers (22-11) have lived up to expectations, settling in at the top of the division with the best record in the league but the big-spending Angels have received precious little bang for their buck, anchored at the bottom of the West standings.
Hamilton, who has battled drug and alcohol addiction throughout his career and suffered a relapse just prior to the start of Spring Training, has put the spotlight back on his play with a jaw-dropping display of power.
With the help of a record-tying four home runs in a single game against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday, Hamilton leads the major leagues with 17 homers and 40 RBI.
While Hamilton has climbed back on the wagon with devastating results, Pujols has fallen into a horrendous slump.
One home run is not the production the Angels (14-19) were expecting from a three-time National League MVP, who has 446 career homers (445 of them with the St Louis Cardinals) and never fewer than 32 in a single major league season.
Washington, however, said he would do his best not to disturb Pujols from his early season slumber.
”I‘m not buying it,“ said Washington, who watched Pujols slug three home runs in Game Three of last year’s World Series against the St Louis Cardinals. ”You don’t shut down Pujols.
“As a baseball player, all it takes is for you to step into the box and one guy toeing the rubber to give you your stuff back and I certainly don’t want to be the team that gives it to him.”
Pujols endured another unproductive night, going hitless in four at-bats while the anticipated pitching duel between Darvish and Wilson fizzled out early.
When the action resumed after a nearly two-hour rain delay, Wilson was out of the game, the Angels opting not to risk the arm of their ace and ending the showdown after less than one inning, leaving Texans fans to vent their anger elsewhere.
Wilson’s work lasted just one third of an inning but it was long enough to be saddled with the loss as he surrendered four runs on three hits.
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by John O'Brien