Monday October 18th, 2010

As the clock ticked toward the minute at which the Yankees would have to board their bus to the airport for their plane ride back to New York on Saturday night, it was clear that Alex Rodriguez had done the math and wanted to make one thing clear: The ALCS, which the Rangers had just tied at 1-1 due to their easy 7-2 Game 2 win, was now a five-game series. This was Rodriguez's message, and we know that because he made sure to mention it in almost every answer he provided to the reporters who huddled around him.

"Alex, you have home field advantage now -- can you give us your thoughts?"

"It's good to be home... Best-of-five now."

"Where do you think you're at right now?"

"OK. Would like to get some more hits. But the series is early. Best-of-five now."

Yes, the ALCS, which resumes Monday night in the Bronx, has been whittled down to a best-of-five series, with Cliff Lee starting for the Rangers in Game 1 (and, presumably, in Game 5). In other words, this series now sets up in precisely the way that the Yankees seemed to desperately, without admitting it, want to avoid as they strove for the AL wild card (and not the AL East crown) in the season's final weeks. They didn't seem to want to face Lee and the Rangers in a five-game ALDS; now they get Lee and the Rangers in a five-game ALCS, with a World Series berth in the offing.

Of course, in some ways -- and despite the fact that they now hold home-field advantage, for whatever that's worth -- the Yankees are starting this best-of-five set in a worse position than they would have been before an ALDS Game 1. For one thing, while the Rangers will be able to open with the man who is not only their ace, but probably the ace of this postseason full of aces -- you know Lee's playoff resume by now, have seen how his already cool basket-catching demeanor chills even more along with the weather -- the Yankees will counter not with their own ace, CC Sabathia, but with Andy Pettitte. Yes, Pettitte is the all-time postseason wins leader and pitched exceedingly well against the Twins in Game 2 of the ALDS, but he is still 38 and recovering from a groin strain. Game 3, Pettitte said on Sunday, is about this: "It's, can Andy go out there tomorrow and get locked in and get a good feel for his pitches and throw a game that I would like to throw?" A question to which the Yankees would love an answer, to be sure, and an answer that involves more than pointing out that this is now a best-of-five series.

An even graver problem for the Yankees, however, is the man who they continue to insist will start Game 4 for them on Tuesday, A.J. Burnett. "We set up our rotation for a number of reasons," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said on Sunday. "We're just staying with it. Phil Hughes has never thrown on short rest. We have Andy Pettitte, who is coming off an injury. There's a lot of things that go into making up your rotation. We believe in A.J. I know it's been a tough year for him at times this year, but we believe in A.J.."

Girardi also indicated that his belief in Burnett is inextricably tied to the weather; if there is a rainout that would allow him to push his other starters to a schedule in which they'd have normal rest, he might no longer believe in A.J. "I know there's some weather in our forecast," Girardi said. When you are sticking to your plan to start a player whose 2010 ERA was the third-worst among the 92 players who qualified for either league's ERA crown, even though a loss by that player could mean a 3-1 series deficit and the probable conclusion of your hopes for a second-straight World Series, you become not only a baseball manager but an amateur meteorologist.

The good news for the Rangers doesn't end there. They have proved, perhaps once and for all, that they can beat the Yankees in October, and that they are a more versatile team with more ways of attacking when things go wrong. The extended injuries to many of their key components (including Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton) have now healed. At just the right time, GM Jon Daniels' in-season acquisitions (Bengie Molina, Jorge Cantu, Jeff Francoeur) have helped form a deep team that can win in any number of ways. For all intents and purposes, the Rangers have dominated the Yankees for 17 of the 18 innings in the ALCS. Their starting pitchers have been vastly superior, they have stolen bases (five of them), they have hit home runs and they have drawn walks. As a team, their on-base-percentage in the series' first two games exceeds .400, and six separate Rangers have started the ALCS with OPS' that exceed 1.000. The Yankees, one through nine, still have the more fearsome lineup, but the Rangers have shown that they might have pieces that can better and more quickly adapt to specific game situations when they present themselves -- when they are not simply exerting their will on the Yankees starters, as they did against both CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes.

This doesn't mean that Game 3 is exactly a "must-win" for the Yankees -- for a team that possesses their ability to all at once come back, there really isn't such a thing as a "must-win," except if their opponent actually has three wins already in a best-of-seven series. But a start by Lee was once one that the Yankees thought they could probably punt with little impact on their chances of winning the series. Now, even though it's not a must-win, it's certainly a game that they'd very much like to win. The Yankees have home-field advantage in the ALCS. But they no longer have the advantage.

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