Thursday October 21st, 2010

NEW YORK -- "We are not thinking about how we are going to close anyone out," Rangers manager Ron Washington said on Tuesday night, minutes after his club had reached a 3-1 lead in this ALCS. "We are going to go out there and play baseball, and whatever the game asks us to do, we'll do it. We are not coming to the ballpark tomorrow night with the only thing on our minds [being] closing somebody out. We are coming to the ballpark tomorrow with our minds on baseball and our minds reacting to whatever the game says we have to react to."

If the Rangers did not arrive at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday thinking about putting away the Bombers, they still seemed to have been thinking about something other than they had for this series' first four games. Perhaps something similar to the thoughts that collectively gripped them in their only real low point of the series before Wednesday, the top of the eighth inning of Game 1. With their franchise's first World Series berth a win away, the Rangers delivered a strange, unfocused performance, filled with lapses of the type they hadn't previously been making.

The Rangers' unraveling began in the second inning. Starter C.J. Wilson walked Alex Rodriguez, then got Marcus Thames to pop out, then walked Lance Berkman, then allowed a sharp RBI single to Jorge Posada. The Yankees led 1-0; surely a manageable deficit, for these Rangers, averaging 7.5 runs per game in the ALCS. Then, with Berkman on second and Posada on first, Curtis Granderson hit a line drive to Jeff Francoeur in right field.

Francoeur's shortcomings as a baseball player are well known -- mostly, his inability to reach base with anything resembling an acceptable consistency -- but the strength of his arm is not among them. Francoeur, in fact, might have the best outfield arm in baseball. He did this year, according to advanced metrics available at the Web site, and since he came into the league in 2006 he has 81 outfield assists, 17 more than any other player. When Francoeur picked up Granderson's single, Berkman had just reached third base, but was -- for some reason, because there was one out and Berkman is at 34 an awfully slow runner -- about to round it and head for home.

Berkman would have likely been out by several feet even if Francoeur had released a weak throw, for him, to catcher Matt Treanor. But instead, Francoeur picked up the ball, pivoted to his right and made a more difficult, and longer, throw, to try to nail Posada (even slower than Berkman) at third. Not only did Berkman score without a play, but Francoeur's throw got through third baseman Michael Young. Posada became the second Yankee on the same play to make an ill-advised baserunning decision when he immediately took off for home, and Wilson, who had been backing up third, could have thrown him out by a margin even greater than Berkman would have been thrown out. But from a distance of maybe 50 feet or so, Wilson threw the ball well over Treanor's head. Posada scored, and it was 3-1.

"I know Berkman's not the fastest guy in the world, but I thought I had a better chance at Posada at third," said Francoeur, whose thoughts on the matter might change should he ever review a replay. "That inning got away from us. Can't do that. That hurt us."

It was a comedy of errors, and one that was representative of Wednesday's effort by the Rangers in a 7-2 loss. They got 11 hits off of starter CC Sabathia -- in fact, they mustered a hit in every inning of the game but the eighth -- but they didn't string them together, and went just 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position. In the seventh, trailing 6-2, Elvis Andrus led off with an infield single off of reliever Kerry Wood, and then advanced to second on a wild pitch. Then Andrus -- ridiculously, inexplicably (with a four-run deficit) -- got picked off second. Another nascent Rangers rally was done. "The thing about Elvis," Washington said, is that "when his game is flowing, he thinks he's invincible ... Sometimes our game does that to us but we are not going to stop playing it."

The thing about it was, the Rangers seemed to be playing a different game on Wednesday than they previously had been. "The key when you talk about the playoffs is to maximize mistakes," said Granderson. "They didn't seem to make too many in the first couple of games in this series."

On Wednesday, they did, and the Yankees capitalized upon them, their offense feeding off of them, air being pumped into their deflated hopes by them. Now the series returns to Texas -- Game 6 will be played on Friday.

"Comfort?" Washington asked, when it was pointed out to the Rangers still have two games in which to win one. "You're never comfortable, because you never know what's going to happen from day to day."

The Rangers maintain the advantage, a significant one at that, but Washington will have to hope that the club that shows up to the Ballpark in Arlington on Friday is much more similar to the club of this series' first four games than it is to the one that showed up Wednesday.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.