Confident Rangers putting it all together
Texas hits on all cylinders to stagger Yankees, move within one win of World Series
NEW YORK -- In the chilly October air, in these still-hallowed confines of new Yankee Stadium, a remarkable transfer of American League supremacy is unfolding before a stunned pinstriped nation.
The youthful Texas Rangers, undaunted and unrelenting, are emerging stronger and more determined by the day, confidently playing their own brand of dynamic, fundamental baseball. In numbing contrast, the veteran, defending champion New York Yankees are scrambling to plug more leaks, a ship sinking in a sea of surprisingly low-rent performances and questionable managerial decisions, a myriad of woes that money can't fix, at least not now.
On the mound, in the field, at the plate and on the basepaths, the Rangers are finding inventive ways to score and get outs. They're playing each hand dealt to them with guile and confidence, dominating and frustrating the Yankee machine at every turn. Tuesday's Game 4, a 10-3 lashing, emphasized this dramatic shift in power.
The Rangers' third straight win, and their first in comeback fashion, has this recently bankrupt franchise on the brink of clinching its first AL pennant Wednesday afternoon at the mercy of baseball's wealthiest principal.
For the second time in as many nights, the Yankees came to bat in the bottom of the ninth on the heels of another demoralizing Rangers barrage, with three-fourths of the 49,977 fans having abandoned the building. The die-hards left behind broke the almost eerie silence by mocking applause after Brett Gardner singled to lead off.
"It's been a little unusual," captain Michael Young said of the twice-emptied ballpark. "That's not for us to really focus on. Our focus level has to remain on the field in executing. Whether it's pitching, defense or offense, we have to make sure we stay focused on the things that we have to do, which is baseball only."
The Rangers have reached this moment by doing all of the above throughout the postseason. Game 4 might have set a new precedent for all-around execution -- a game in which starter Tommy Hunter lasted just 3 1/3 innings, a game that could have been there for the Yankees to take.
Consider these high points in each facet of the game:
• Small ball: Once again the Rangers pulled off the rare trick of scoring twice in the third inning without the ball leaving the infield. A walk, hit-by-pitch and sacrifice bunt from the bottom of the order set up Elvis Andrus' run-scoring fielder's choice that was followed by Michael Young's RBI infield single. And just like that Texas had a 2-1 lead, a half-inning after the Yankees took a 1-0 lead, scoring first for the first time in the series.
• Defense: In the fourth inning, Andrus made a spectacular play on Gardner's hot shot in the hole with the bases loaded and the game tied at 2-2. A run scored, but Andrus got the forceout at third, the second out of the inning, and prevented another run. Relief pitcher Derek Holland then struck out catcher Francisco Cervelli to get out of the inning.
"It was huge," Texas manager Ron Washington said of the play. "They took the lead, 3-2, but it minimized the damage."
• Baserunning: In the top of the sixth, Nelson Cruz reached on a fielder's choice. Ian Kinsler then sent a high fly to the edge of the warning track in center, where Curtis Granderson made the catch. Cruz alertly -- and perhaps surprisingly to Granderson -- tagged up and safely advanced to second.
"If the opportunity is there," Cruz said, "you have to take it."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi then made the decision that he will have to live with and New Yorkers will anguish over if the Yankees lose this series. With two outs and Cruz on second, Girardi chose to intentionally walk lefty David Murphy and pitch to catcher Bengie Molina. Afterward, Girardi said he liked the matchup of the righty A.J. Burnett against the right-handed Molina.
Molina jumped on Burnett's first pitch, a fastball, and deposited it in the left-field bleachers. As Molina crossed home plate and headed to the dugout, he pointed toward his family in the stands and pounded his chest.
He had given the Rangers a 5-3 lead that they would not relinquish.
• More power: Josh Hamilton hit two home runs, giving him four in the series -- four more than Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira combined. Teixeira won't play again in this series. He left in the fourth inning with a severe hamstring injury.
• Bullpen: Hunter's early exit could have proved damaging, but Holland, the young lefty who spent time in and out of the minors this season, shut down the Yankees for one hit over 3 2/3 innings.
Meanwhile, each bullpen move Girardi made backfired.
"We're playing complete baseball right now," Hamilton said, "which is something that obviously you want to do this time of year."
The Rangers will hand the Game 5 baseball to lefty C.J. Wilson to go for the New York sweep and a World Series berth. The Yankees will cling to hope with Cy Young candidate CC Sabathia, who lasted four miserable innings in Game 1, only to be let off the hook by the one big inning the Yankees can claim in this series -- and the one reason they remain in this series.
The old playoff adage is that the last win is the toughest one to get. But even for that, the Rangers seem to have an answer.
"If that's true," Hamilton said, a smile creeping on his face, "we've never been here before, so how would we know?"
What is known is that these no-longer inexperienced Texas Rangers are unfazed by the Yankees, and they're not intimidated by Yankee Stadium or the weight of the moment.
"We're a confident team. We've been that way for a while," Young said. "We want to make sure we stay focused on the task at hand, but we're definitely a confident group."