As Freeway Series opens, Angels and Dodgers starting to look like rivals

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LOS ANGELES – First off, they're not in the same town. They're not in the same county. If that dude up north with all the Bitcoins and the bright idea about six Californias has his way, they won't even be in the same state.

They are separated by 31 miles as I-5 flies, which it never does, so that's not relevant.

They've never played an important game against each other. Only once – five years ago – were they sort of close to playing an important game, and that died inside four days in late October, in an imprecise Vicente Padilla start in Philadelphia and a chilly two-error night in the Bronx. Over more than a half-century, that's about it.

But, well, here they are, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Angels, generally overrun by the Los Angeles Lakers but typically not until training camp opens, each of them mid-summer relevant, each of them riding along in an era of West Coast baseball revival.

The Dodgers have the best record in the National League, the Angels the second-best record in the American League. They lead their leagues in total attendance (the Angels are second to the Yankees in AL average attendance). Occasionally, the Dodgers can even be seen on the television. The Angels have slowly dropped the "of Anaheim" portion of their identity, which changed nothing except perhaps moving the ballparks eight feet closer together in the national consciousness.

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Albert Pujols (right) and Juan Uribe speak before the opener of the Freeway Series. (AP)

Albert Pujols (right) and Juan Uribe speak before the opener of the Freeway Series. (AP)

They both spend big. They have big stars. The Dodgers have the best pitcher in the game. The Angels counter with the game's best player. After years, sometimes decades, of alternating real significance in a sport that produces some of its greatest talent on their street corners, the Angels and Dodgers have a chance to play their very first important games.

A lot would have to happen, of course. But it's still out there, the distant possibility of it, beyond the refreshed pitching staffs in Oakland and Detroit, and the parity that suffocates the National League, and whatever else might arise in the next two months. It's out there for two franchises that generally have coexisted in peace, and at times even blurred. (Justin Turner, the Dodger, has attended one playoff game in his life – at Edison Field, now known as Angel Stadium, in 2002. Tyler Skaggs, the Angel, has a tattoo on his right biceps of the interlocking LA that is the Dodgers logo.)

In the meantime, four early August games in 2014 would have to do, and perhaps the basis of a rivalry – not just red vs. blue, not just L.A. vs. O.C., and not just the team of Mike Scioscia's prime vs. the team of Mike Scioscia's middle age, but a good hardball rivalry – began to form. On Monday night at Dodger Stadium, where the bleachers were blue and specked with red, the crowd here booed Mike Trout as he'd never been booed before. When they showed Trout on the video board (after he'd run into the right center-field gap to take a hit from A.J. Ellis), they booed again, and Trout smiled, so they booed some more.

"It's how baseball should be," Trout said. "We're rivals. It's crosstown. It's fun for me.

"We're an hour from here, so I expect it."

Because, in part, they have Yasiel Puig here, and they love them some Puig, who is quite good and still not Trout. Not yet. He is for the moment their center fielder, which furthers the Trout-or-Puig debate, and lends a couple faces to the Angels-or-Dodgers conversation.

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Mike Trout (left) and Yasiel Puig embrace before their game. (AP)

Mike Trout (left) and Yasiel Puig embrace before their game. (AP)

Puig might expect a similar reception in Anaheim, as the locals take up for their own center fielder, and then recall Monday night's byplay between Puig and Erick Aybar and then Puig and Albert Pujols in a 5-0 Angels win.

First, in the sixth inning, Puig caught a fly ball and threw behind Aybar at first base. Aybar returned safely and waved a finger at Puig, who waved a finger back. It seemed in fun. Then, in the eighth, Puig drifted under a fly ball, caught it casually to the side, and looked up just in time to see that Pujols had tagged up at first base and advanced to second.

"The game is not over," Pujols said, "until you make 27 outs."

When the next ball also was a fly ball to center field, Puig paid it more attention, caught it and then mockingly gestured for Pujols to try his luck at third base. Pujols returned to second base and waved dismissively at Puig.

"He can do whatever he wants," Pujols said. "I'm fine. I don't have any problem."

So, maybe there's something between these Angels and these Dodgers, a little more than the highway that runs between them, a rivalry they've talked about since Champion, Gene Autry's five-tool steed, was a pony, but never amounted to much.

If not, it'll do until the Lakers report.

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