Commentary

C.J. Wilson out to set Rangers' tone

With Cliff Lee starting Game 3, it's up to career reliever to anchor Texas' rotation

Updated: October 14, 2010, 10:17 AM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- As Rangers manager Ron Washington's top choice to relieve Cliff Lee in Tuesday's do-or-die Game 5, C.J. Wilson took no chances. As a precautionary measure that morning, Wilson dished the same game-day meal he has before every one of his 34 starts this season.

"I do a spinach, Swiss cheese, mushrooms, avocado omelet-scramble thingy," Wilson explained. "It's great; it's amazing. Sometimes I throw some bacon in there."

He wouldn't need it. Lee pitched masterfully, going the distance and striking out 11 to jettison the Tampa Bay Rays and springboard the Texas Rangers into their first American League Championship Series against the defending champion New York Yankees.

Wilson, the former career reliever known for being as eccentric off the field as he once was erratic out of the bullpen, will hold off on his lucky omelet until Friday.

That's when the 29-year-old left-hander, in his first season as a full-time starter, will become not only the most interesting man in the Texas clubhouse but also arguably its most important.

With the former Cy Young Award winner Lee forced to save the season in Tampa Bay after Texas failed to put away the Rays at home, the less decorated and more outspoken Wilson steps into the spotlight as the ALCS Game 1 starter opposite imposing Yankees ace and 21-game winner CC Sabathia.

It could be the first of two dramatic matchups between the two, an intriguing plot twist to the anticipated battles between Sabathia and his good friend Lee. The two were longtime teammates in Cleveland and went at each other in last season's World Series, Sabathia with the Yankees and Lee with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Their wives and children are friendly, and many baseball observers have gratuitously penciled them in as teammates in pinstripes once Lee becomes a free agent after the season.

Although Lee, now 6-0 in the past two postseasons with a 1.44 ERA and 56 strikeouts, won't take the mound until Game 3 at Yankee Stadium -- the first of potentially three games in a row in the Bronx -- Wilson has the task of outdueling the American League co-leader in wins. His start would set up Colby Lewis in Game 2 against Phil Hughes before getting to Lee, who faces Andy Pettitte.

Wilson and Sabathia could engage in Game 5 with Lee poised to start Game 7 in Arlington. Wilson knows he will have to be at his best.

"Everything that I've done to transition into a starter, it's always been to try to get this team to this point and follow Cliff's example now," Wilson said. "That's what we're really all looking for."

Except Lee will do the following in this series, placing extraordinary pressure on Wilson's series-opening start, even for a guy who exudes, at least publicly, every bit of that native SoCal swagger and charisma.

"I'm pretty excited, but at the same time it's like I'm just going to go out there and prepare like I normally would," Wilson said. "[Tuesday] was like a minibullpen [session]. I have a couple days off before the game, so I'll just prepare like I normally would: make sure I eat my lucky omelet in the morning and then get my sleep, and everything will be the same in that sense."

Yet everything will be different. Wilson will face a loaded Yankees lineup as opposed to the light-hitting Rays, who often couldn't get out of their own way in combining for one run, 14 hits and 28 strikeouts in three ALDS games against Lee and Wilson. In Game 2, Wilson allowed no runs on two hits through 6 1/3 innings before his pitch count forced him out of the Rangers' 6-0 win.

Wilson has been so dominant against left-handed hitters this season that Rays manager Joe Maddon didn't even bother to put struggling slugger Carlos Pena into his Game 2 lineup.

The Yankees' lineup is not the Rays' lineup. It features key hitters who switch-hit, and the list of mashers is long: Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, Mark Teixeira, Nick Swisher, Curtis Granderson, Jorge Posada and, of course, Alex Rodriguez. They pummeled the Minnesota Twins' pitching in their ALDS sweep, batting a blistering .314 as a team and scoring 17 runs and cranking 11 extra-base hits.

"They're a team built for the playoffs. They've been through the wars before; this is our first time in it," Washington said. "But it's not always the best team that wins, but the team that plays the best."

Wilson won 15 games, including an 11-2 stretch from June through August, and he posted a 3.35 ERA. Remarkably, Wilson threw 204 innings, nearly matching his total from the previous four seasons in relief that included stints as a hold-your-breath closer.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Wilson
J. Meric/Getty ImagesThe Yankees present a different challenge to C.J. Wilson, who had a 5.65 ERA against them this season.
But he hasn't been at his best in three outings this season against New York. Although the Rangers have won two of his three starts against the Yankees, Wilson has lasted just 14 1/3 innings, and his 5.65 ERA is the highest against any American League team except the Twins.

Yet even that doesn't seem to faze him as the biggest start of his life creeps closer.

"When I was in Little League, it was like I was pretending it was the World Series, so it's like I feel like I've been preparing for this for a long time," Wilson said. "I enjoy it. I look forward to it. It feels nice to know that you're on the field with the best players in the league, with the best teams in the league and with the best team in the league behind you as well."

In some ways, Wilson epitomizes the rise of the Rangers team -- gritty, determined, team-oriented and unafraid of adversity. He had to lobby general manager Jon Daniels and president Nolan Ryan just for the opportunity to audition to be considered for the rotation after grinding for four seasons in the 'pen.

"Our team has jelled so well because of the fact that we have so many guys that are kind of cut from the same cloth," Wilson said. "We have a lot of blue-collar guys, and the superstar guys are down-to-earth, so it allows us to all get along and really pull for each other."

At spring training, the organization set the bar exceedingly high for him to become a starter, and he surpassed it. After the All-Star break, the name C.J. Wilson popped up on Cy Young watch lists. He'll battle a leading contender for pitching's top honor under the hot lights of Friday night's Game 1.

The Rangers will be pulling for Wilson to grab center stage and set the table for a run, however initially improbable yet now seemingly possible, to the World Series.

Jeff Caplan writes for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.

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