NEW YORK -- For a fleeting moment when New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano came to the plate for his first at-bat against kryptonite-hurling Cliff Lee, the Yankee Stadium crowd tried to start an "MVP, MVP" chant.
It didn't last long or get very loud. Of course, the more likely American League MVP, the Texas Rangers' Josh Hamilton, had already hushed the place on a chilly night when he roped Andy Pettitte's cutter into the right-field bleachers for another quick-strike first inning.
By the time the Rangers' six-run ninth-inning barrage finally ended, allowing Lee to comfortably hit the showers and young closer Neftali Feliz to get a feel for the Bronx, Mystique and Aura had cleared out of the new stadium, right along with the club's cursing fandom.
Then came the moment of truth for this band of inexperienced Rangers in the three-quarters-empty ballpark: "Let's go, Rangers!" erupted from a group of red-clad Texans standing in the second deck along the third-base line. Only to be interrupted by a "Cowboys suck" chant -- OK, so some things can't be argued -- the group rang home an 8-0 Game 3 victory that pushed this scrappy, unheralded Texas team to a 2-1 lead over the mighty defending champs in this best-of-seven American League Championship Series.
"Let's go, Rangers" in Yankee Stadium? Who could have imagined?
"Well," Rangers team president and co-owner Nolan Ryan said in his molasses-like drawl, "I have to realize that it also came from our group of wives and other traveling party."
True, but point being that the opportunity presented itself to needle the Northerners.
"Yeah, I know," Ryan acknowledged. "It was pretty neat."
In the postgame clubhouse, the Rangers did not act as though the series was won, just as they conceded nothing after the Game 1 meltdown or after dropping two at home to Tampa Bay before clinching on the road, which is suddenly this team's favorite place to be.
The Rangers seized their fourth straight road win behind a phenomenal 13-strikeout performance from Lee, Hamilton's big first-inning homer and a seemingly never-ending ninth-inning barrage that dented the Yankees' bullpen for the first time in the series and left the New York crowd with a feeling similar to the one experienced in Arlington three nights earlier.
"It kind of felt like the inning they had against us in the eighth at our place, to be honest," said catcher Matt Treanor, who was warming up arms for the bottom of the ninth. "I got a sense from the people yelling at us from the bullpen that they were just wanting to get an out, any type of positive. It got crazy out there."
The Rangers spent the ALDS beating the Tampa Bay Rays at their own game, running the bases with abandon all the way to the ALCS. Now they're taking the lumber to the Bronx Bombers, outscoring them 20-8 overall and 15-2 in the past two games.
"I don't know what they think. I know what we think," said outfielder Nelson Cruz, who extended his postseason hit streak to eight with a run-scoring single in the ninth. "I know we got control. You can see the way we've played in the three games."
Granted, Pettitte -- trying to extend his record of postseason wins to 20 -- pitched a tremendous game, save for his mistake that Hamilton got under just enough and popped into the bleachers with Michael Young on first. After that, Pettitte matched Texas' current postseason king until the 38-year-old's 110 pitches forced him out after seven innings of five-hit ball.
Getting to the Yankees' pen got the Rangers' bats going and turned this series decisively in Texas' favor. Even the resilient Rangers couldn't downplay the importance of winning the first of three in New York and regaining the upper hand in the series.
"We're up 2-1," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "I mean, we don't have the lower hand, I know that. It's something that we've been capable of doing all year long. This team, in here, is known for that [bouncing back]. That's what we expect out of ourselves and we just keep proving it to ourselves."
Following Lee will be young right-hander Tommy Hunter, who lasted just four innings in his postseason debut in Game 4 of the ALDS. Yet the Rangers might be more confident in what Hunter will give them than the Yankees can be in
enigmatic starter A.J. Burnett.
In a simulated game Wednesday, Burnett's first pitch sailed over the catcher's head. Then he hit two batters, guys on his own team. When asked before Game 3 if he would consider starting CC Sabathia on short rest, Yankees manager Joe Girardi simply said, "We're on rotation."
After the game, asked if Burnett will still start, Girardi said "yes."
A win Tuesday would put the Rangers in position to clinch Wednesday right here.
The words "World Series" have not been uttered in the Texas clubhouse, but after three dominating games -- with Game 1 slipping through their fingers -- the Rangers are well-positioned, in this series and in their minds, to make more history.
"Everyone always says 'Have fun in the postseason and enjoy it.' But you don't want to go out there and say 'I'm having a great time and I'm down a bunch of runs,'" said Young, the team captain. "This team has done a good job of taking advantage of this opportunity, of enjoying it and staying ultra-competitive.
"Game 5 is completely off our radar right now. We're going to go all-out for Game 4. That's just kind of the way we're wired."