ARLINGTON, Texas -- Three years ago Colby Lewis thought he was done. With his major league career at a dead end -- he had endured rotator cuff surgery and a 2007 season in which he was released by the Nationals and the Royals -- the barrel-chested former first-round draft pick packed his bags for Japan, and he had no idea when he was coming back. "When I got the opportunity to go over there," Lewis says of his offer from the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Japan's Central League, "I was looking at it to pretty much finish my career over there."
For Colby Preston Lewis of Bakersfield, Calif., it has been a long, strange and rather remarkable journey to Game 6 of the ALCS. At Rangers Ballpark on Friday night, the 31-year-old right-hander will take the mound against Phil Hughes and the Yankees in what will be the biggest start of his career -- and, perhaps, the biggest start in Texas Rangers history. "If you told me that I'd be in this situation two years ago, when I was thinking [about] me finishing up my career in Japan," Lewis says, "I would have told you you'd be nuts."
Yes, the Rangers have the star of the 2010 postseason, the ultimate October weapon, Cliff Lee, ready to go in Game 7, but they would very much like to shut the door on the defending champs rather than put their fate in a winner-take-all game where anything is possible. The burning questions entering Friday night's rumble in Arlington: Will the Yankees offense stay hot after finally awakening in Game 5? Just how bad is Nelson Cruz's hamstring injury? Who will take the next round in the Robinson Cano-Josh Hamilton Home Run Derby? Will Hughes, who left too many fastballs over the plate in Game 2 -- "Something's got to change, I've got to execute my pitches better," he said on Thursday -- redeem himself?
And then there's this: Can Texas' Japanese import, the most unlikely starter of this postseason, repeat his impressive Game 2 start, in which he allowed two runs and struck out six Yankees over 5 2/3 innings? "The key, I think, to trying to beat the Yankees is keeping them in the ballpark," says Rangers manager Ron Washington, whose pitchers allowed three home runs over the first four games -- but three more in Game 5 alone. "If you don't keep them in the ballpark, you've got no chance. That's the key for Colby, to continue to just maintain his command, get his spots and keep the ball down. We have all the confidence in the world that he can do that."
Confidence isn't a problem for Lewis, who has been cool under October's hot lights. Before he shut down the Yankees last weekend, Lewis threw five shutout innings against the Rays in Game 3 of the ALDS. "Everybody talks about postseason pressure and nervousness," he says. "But I kind of look at nervousness as taking my family to Japan. That's nervous -- going to a foreign country, not knowing what to expect."
That Lewis ended up back in Texas -- which drafted him 38th overall in 1999 -- is "a testament to our scouts," says GM Jon Daniels. "They did a great job. After hearing their reports, we were pretty aggressive in getting Colby. He's night-and-day different from before he left. He was a thrower before." Daniels added, "From a makeup standpoint, I just have tremendous respect for a man who believes in himself so much that he's willing to take his family out there and reinvent himself. That's pretty impressive."
Recalls Hall of Famer and Rangers part-owner Nolan Ryan, "I knew Colby when he was a young prospect here, and I saw him in the minor leagues. And I saw the dominant stuff he had and the great breaking ball. He was an exciting young prospect. Then I saw the video on him [in Japan], and I saw his breaking ball and the way he commanded the strike zone. I saw his mound presence. One of the biggest things to me was his confidence: he knew how to pitch, how to set up hitters. You take a player that's willing to go to Japan without knowing the culture or the language, and you be successful like he was -- well, as an organization, you don't worry about maturity with a player like that. That's commitment. And I just thought, 'Well, we need a guy like that.'"
When he left for Japan, Lewis was a fastball-throwing gunslinger. When he came back, he didn't have the blazing fastball anymore, but he was finally a pitcher. This season he was fifth among AL starters with an 8.78 strikeout rate and 11th in strikeout-to-walk ratio. He threw his fastball, which tops out in the low 90s, more than 50 percent of the time but now has a slider that, according to Fangraphs, was one of the game's most effective this season. In his start last weekend against the Yankees he relied more on his curveball after watching C.J. Wilson use the pitch with so much success in Game 1. The Yankees, of course, adjusted to Wilson in Game 5. Who will make the right adjustments in Game 6?
The Rangers are a confident team. On Thursday afternoon at their team workout, the starting pitchers took BP as if it's a certainty that they'll be facing either the Giants or Phillies on the road next week. They're confident because they know they have Lee in Game 7. But they're confident because they know this, too: You shouldn't bet against Colby Lewis.