Saturday October 16th, 2010

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Two words appear again and again in and around The Ballpark at Arlington, on fans' T-shirts, on banners hanging from lampposts, on the porticos of motels and on the marquee of a business called Baby Doll Topless (not, as you're probably thinking, a purveyor of convertibles):


Time for the Rangers to become relevant, after 50 years of being everything but. Time for them to win not only their first-ever playoff series -- as they accomplished Tuesday -- but to go further. Time for them to reverse all the dubious trends that define their thin playoff history -- which included, entering Friday night, six losses and no wins at home, and nine straight defeats to the Yankees. Said manager Ron Washington before the game, of his team's seize-the-moment mindset: "We've had three days away, and now we are ready to play."

For the majority of Friday night's ALCS Game 1, it certainly seemed as if for the Rangers, it was time. Texas legend Nolan Ryan, now the club's part-owner and team president, sent an already-energetic crowd into a frenzy when he treated his first-pitch duties as more than ceremonial, backing up all the way to the rubber, kicking his leg high, and throwing a scorcher. "Our goal is to get in the World Series and win the World Series, and if we fall short of that, we'll be disappointed," Ryan said beforehand.

It certainly seemed as if it was the Rangers' time when they jumped on normally steady Yankees' ace CC Sabathia, who at first seemed to have trouble finding the edge of umpire Gerry Davis' lunchpail-sized strike zone, and then couldn't get anywhere near it. The Rangers had entered the game with a 24.2 inning scoreless streak against the Yankees in the playoffs, and that's where that streak ended. Beginning the bottom of the first, Sabathia walked Elvis Andrus, allowed a single to Michael Young and then yielded a 365-foot three-run homer to Josh Hamilton on the third Championship Series pitch Hamilton had ever seen.

Sabathia threw first-pitch strikes to just two of the first ten batters, and had already thrown 50 pitches (only half of them strikes) by the end of the second inning. Through four innings, Sabathia -- counted on to be the constant in the Yankees rotation (in the past two regular seasons, he had thrown 3,587 and 3,587 pitches) -- had thrown 93 pitches and that was the end of his night. The Rangers had knocked out the Yankees ace, their rotation's linchpin, after his shortest outing since last October 2, and held a 5-0 lead behind a locked-in C.J. Wilson.

They had to be thinking: It's time.

"He was definitely off today," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi of his starter, "but [he] didn't give up ten runs. He kept it to five." Indeed, Sabathia's outing would have been much worse, if not for the impressively athletic play he made at the end of the first inning, when he sprinted in from the mound after unleashing a wild pitch and -- in one motion -- received a toss from catcher Jorge Posada and slid to tag Nelson Cruz, who was charging home from third base. The hometown bounce the Yankees had gotten on that play -- the ball caromed off the Ballpark's brick backstop directly into Posada's glove -- in retrospect seemed a sign of things to come. Come, things did, in the Yankees' half of eighth inning, in what has to have been one of the more remarkable half-innings in postseason history.

The top of the eighth lasted 35 minutes and seven seconds, give or take a few ticks. Before even a single out had been recorded, five Rangers pitchers threw 34 pitches to seven Yankees batters, and the Yankees turned a seemingly insurmountable 5-1 deficit into a definitively insurmountable 6-5 lead. It was here the Rangers seemed to lose track of the script, of their focus, of those two words emblazoned on fans' T-shirts and strip-club marquees.

Their outfielders suddenly couldn't pick up routine groundballs without bobbling them, allowing Yankee runners to take extra bases. Washington made a series of bullpen moves -- the thinking behind which scholars might one day be able to decipher. One questionable move involved leaving Wilson in to face Derek Jeter, even though Wilson had thrown over 100 pitches and Jeter is a career .357 hitter against him. The result: Jeter doubled in Brett Gardner, who outhustled Wilson to first for an infield hit, with the inning's first run. Next, Washington called on a succession of four relievers, none of whom was his best, Neftali Feliz.

The Rangers' unexpected rash of bungling continued in the bottom of the eighth, when Ian Kinsler (the potential game-tying run) walked, only to get picked off by one hopes was less than Kerry Wood's 'A' move. Wood gave way to Mariano Rivera in the ninth. "It got away from us," Washington said. "We just didn't execute."

In their clubhouse, the Rangers did their best to talk and look like a team that had not just blown a crucial game in a crushing fashion, referring to their resilience in overcoming obstacles this season, including the revelation of Washington's positive cocaine test and an unfair share of injuries. "We don't waste our time thinking about what's already happened," Michael Young said.

"Just one game, dude," said a smiling Wilson. "I think a lot of guys are encouraged."

"I pitched almost good enough," Wilson said.

There were, for the Rangers, a lot of almosts. They almost delivered what might have been an early critical blow to the Yankees, whose ALCS future might have included three additional probable losses (both Cliff Lee's starts, and A.J. Burnett's start). They almost forced Girardi into making the difficult decision to tap Sabathia again for Game 4, thereby putting his entire staff on short rest (that Girardi pulled Sabathia after only 93 pitches suggests he was already thinking about that).

It was almost their time; but it wasn't.

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