ARLINGTON -- Heading into a season in which the Angels expected to challenge the back-to-back American League champs, this was the anticipated series.
This upcoming weekend set at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington -- where Yu Darvish faces C.J. Wilson in the opener, Albert Pujols returns to the place where he homered three times in a World Series game, and a revamped Angels team meets the division rivals that have won two straight pennants -- was expected to be the start of a year-long tug of war.
But through 32 games, the Angels' fiercest rivals remains themselves.
"Our challenge is in-house," manager Mike Scioscia said when asked about the early test against the Rangers. "We have to become the team we can become first."
Scioscia's Angels aren't there yet. They've played better lately, taking two of three over the Twins and winning seven of their past 10 overall. But the offense -- most notably Pujols -- has been a constant struggle, and the bullpen has been a year-long frustration.
Because of that, the Angels go into their first series against the Rangers with a 14-18 record and, heading into Thursday's action in the big leagues, a seven-game deficit in the AL West standings.
"I really don't waste too much energy on trying to figure out what [the Rangers are] doing," said Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick, whose club has missed the playoffs the past two years. "We know that they're playing well, I can tell you that, and then you see guys like [Josh] Hamilton swinging the bat well. But other than that, I really just try to focus on what we're doing here."
The Rangers, off to a flying start despite falling short at the very end once again last season, apparently aren't paying much attention to the Angels either.
"If we play good baseball, we'll take care of business," Texas skipper Ron Washington said. "It's early. Anything can happen, so we have to stay focused. We can't let our focus stray. If we stay in the position we're in, come September I'll start checking on them. Besides, with the type of team they have, they're not going to [struggle all year]. They're too good. That's why we have to take care of our business."
Say what you want, but it's hard not to perk up about the matchup that will present Friday, with Wilson facing Darvish. Wilson went 31-15 with a 3.14 ERA in 67 regular-season starts during two years in Texas' rotation, but the Rangers didn't make him a formal contract offer by early December -- then committed nearly $110 million on the lesser-known Japanese right-hander he'll now pitch against.
Wilson instead signed a five-year, $77.5 million deal to join the rival Angels on Dec. 8 -- the same day Pujols signed, and thus the day Angels fans began feeling like their team could take the crown away from the Rangers.
Wilson did his best to downplay his return to Texas and his matchup with Darvish. As he put it, "We're just uniforms pitching against uniforms."
"I think it's interesting, obviously, that we both kind of slotted into the rotation the way we did, that that's the way it lines up. But it's not the National League, so I don't have to face him," Wilson added.
"It's not emotional for me. It's baseball. It's a sport. It's my job. My job is to try to do really well, and it doesn't matter who I pitch against."
The only formal offer Wilson ever got from the Rangers was a three-year deal just a few days before Opening Day last season, after he publicly said it didn't seem like anything would get done before the start of his walk year. Wilson then navigated through the early portion of this offseason waiting to see what the Rangers would do, but nothing materialized.
"[Rangers general manager] Jon Daniels called me the night before I signed and was like, 'Is there anything I can do to tell you not to sign with the Angels?' I kind of laughed," Wilson recalled. "I was like, 'Well, you could make me a contract offer.' It's pretty simple. That's a good start."
Still, Wilson said, he holds no ill will towards the Rangers. They did what they had to do, and Wilson -- who was also heavily pursued by the Marlins during the Winter Meetings -- did his thing.
Both are happy now, it seems. Wilson is back home; the Rangers have the guy they wanted all along.
Both can move on.
"I had a lot of fun [in Texas]," Wilson said. "That was a great team. We had more fun playing baseball the last two years with that team than any team I've ever played on, even [in] junior college.
"What it comes down to at the end of the day is you have to do what's right for you. They moved the way they did because that's the way Jon Daniels, [president and CEO] Nolan Ryan and the ownership group wanted to go. There's nothing wrong with that. You can never begrudge over changing directions."
The biggest strength of Wilson's old team has been the biggest weakness of his new one.
Despite posting four double-digit-hit games in their past five contests, the Angels ended Wednesday's action ranked 12th in the AL in runs per game, 11th in homers and 11th in OPS. The Rangers are no worse than second in those categories.
And despite driving in six runs in his past four games, Pujols -- whose Cardinals defeated the Rangers in seven thrilling World Series games last October -- comes in batting .198 with one homer and 11 RBIs. That means that in his past two games, Hamilton (.406 batting average, 14 homers, 36 RBIs) has hit five more homers and driven in one fewer run than Pujols has all year.
"They have a great ballclub," Pujols said. "They're on top of our division, and our main goal is to be ready to play and put ourselves in a situation to win the series."
Really, that's all the Angels can really focus on at this point. They have a lot to figure out internally before they can worry about dethroning their well-oiled, high-powered divisional counterparts. And they have a long way to go before they can catch them in the standings.
At least time is on their side. Seven-game deficits tend to be less intimidating in early May.
"When you see that in September," outfielder Torii Hunter said, "then you worry."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. MLB.com reporter T.R. Sullivan contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.