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Angels prove they are for real by winning two of three from Astros

The 5-2 loss in the series finale Wednesday notwithstanding, the Angels delivered a stern message this week at Minute Maid Park.

They plan to hang around.

The Angels won two of three games here against the Houston Astros, which allowed them to return to Anaheim only a half-game behind the defending World Series champions.

“When you take two out of three from a division opponent, it’s still a good morale boost,” pitcher Nick Tropeano said.

The Angels have the best player in the game in Mike Trout, who already has 10 home runs. They continue to receive a surprising level of offensive production at shortstop, as Andrelton Simmons is batting .318 with thee home runs. In Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler, they have found answers to their longstanding problems in left field and second base, respectively. Shohei Ohtani has injected a previously absent sense of excitement around the team.

They might not finish ahead of the Astros in the American League West, but they are certain to push them.

Their victories in Houston were a symbol of the team’s resilience and a testament to manager Mike Scioscia’s resourcefulness.

The Angels came into Houston after a disastrous six-game homestand that included three losses to the Boston Red Sox and two more to the San Francisco Giants. They were in second place in the AL West, 1 ½ games behind the Astros, who won their last six games. A sweep by the Astros in this series and it would have felt like the beginning of the end for the Angels.

The Astros are stacked. The have the same frightening lineup that carried them last season to the franchise’s first championship. Their already formidable rotation was upgraded with the offseason acquisition of Gerrit Cole, the former UCLA right-hander who became an All-Star with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“This is not a normal rotation,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said.

Especially with Cole pitching the way he was. Advised by the Astros to throw fewer fastballs and more breaking balls, Cole returned from a disappointing 2017 season to post a sub-one ERA in his first five starts.

In the series opener Monday, the Angels handed Cole his first loss of the season. Tyler Skaggs outpitched Cole in the 2-0 victory by registering seven scoreless innings.

They won an entirely different kind of game Tuesday, as Ohtani lasted only 5 1/3 innings in an 8-7 victory. Scioscia made the right calls down the stretch, with Justin Anderson, Noe Ramirez and Cam Bedrosian combining to blank the Astros over the final 2 2/3 innings.

“You’ve got to focus on the process,” Scioscia said. “The end result is we won two games, but how we got there is what’s important. We did a lot of things in those two games we needed to do. The first game, we pitched really well, held leads, played good defense, got a couple key hits. [In the second game], we just pounded the ball and got enough runs to hold the lead.”

Under Scioscia, the Angels generally haven’t been the kind of team that beats itself. Scioscia has also demonstrated the ability to get the most of out of his bullpen, which could be especially important this season.

While the Astros have fortified their bullpen — the additions of starting pitchers Cole and Justin Verlander in the last year and a half have pushed the capable Brad Peacock and Collin McHugh into relief — the Angels are short in that department. The issue has been magnified by the six-man rotation’s inability to consistently pitch deep into games.

Short of well-rested arms in this series, Scioscia used rookie Anderson in high-leverage situations twice in three games. The games were Anderson’s first two in the major leagues.

But Scioscia managed a considerably less talented team last season and had it competing for a postseason berth late into last season. They should do that again this year.

Once again, important baseball games will be played in Anaheim in September. Only this time, it won’t be a surprise.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez

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