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Rangers finally craft winning rotation

SAN FRANCISCO -- Other than his impressive ceremonial first pitch to open the American League Championship Series, Nolan Ryan's fastballs are relegated to being prized possessions in baseball museums and on office desks.

It's Ryan's larger-than-life presence as team president and now co-owner of the Texas Rangers that delivers the heat in Arlington, Texas, these days. His influence on all things pitching, from work ethic to self-belief, has helped to transform the Rangers' rotation that is -- believe it or not -- as responsible as those all-mighty bats, if not more so, for the franchise's amazing trek to the World Series.

And why not? As general manager Jon Daniels said of his Hall of Fame boss: "What pitcher is going to tell him that you can't pitch here?"

The major league strikeout king and owner of seven no-hitters didn't burn up radar guns well into his 40s by accident. He has instilled a toughness and gumption in this group that no Texas staff has shown before.

Steady all season, even before the July 9 acquisition of the indomitable Cliff Lee, the Rangers' starting pitchers have raised the ante in the postseason. They shut down the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays and then mowed down the fearsome New York Yankees as if the Bronx Bombers had suddenly started swinging matchsticks.

And so the AL champions begin play in the franchise's first World Series against the San Francisco Giants and their talented trio of starters: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez.

The Rangers believe they are equally armed with Lee, a dominant ace who owns a 2010 postseason-best ERA of 0.75; C.J. Wilson, a reliever-turned-starter who has 18 strikeouts in 18 2/3 postseason innings; and Colby Lewis, a reclamation story who is holding playoff opposition to a .172 batting average and who buried the Yankees over eight innings to capture the pennant.

Lee, who will face Lincecum in Wednesday's Game 1, is the ultimate postseason hammer. He is 7-0 with a 1.26 ERA the past two years. In three starts this October, he has struck out 34 and walked one. He threw a complete game to clinch the AL Division Series in Game 5.

Lee's work leads the Rangers into the World Series with a team ERA of 2.76, and playoff opponents are batting just .208 against them. The Giants have slightly better numbers -- as to be expected in the National League without a designated hitter -- with a team ERA of 2.47 and .199 opponents' batting average.

It's a radical change for a Rangers organization that for decades seemed incapable of developing its own prospects or attracting established pitchers as free agents.

Excuses came every summer like clockwork. Either the energy-sapping summer heat or the ballpark with the hitter-friendly jet stream was to blame, or both. This team no longer leans on excuses.

The slow-talking sheriff in the front office doesn't stand for it.

"We had to get our pitchers to realize that you could pitch in Arlington and you could be successful," Ryan said. "And we've proven that you can do that. We had been an organization that tried to outslug everybody. Games that we were getting beat 12 to 13, our pitchers didn't feel like they could be successful there, and we've proven that wrong."

What makes this Rangers pitching story even more remarkable in this monumental season is how it came together. Two key pieces, Scott Feldman and Rich Harden, struggled early and dropped out of the rotation midseason. Harden is no longer with the team and Feldman is a postseason spectator.

In stepped unknown quantities. Wilson is the cool and confident lefty who never met an interview he didn't like and looks as though a surfboard belongs under his arm.

He has learned how to refine his multitude of pitches and, particularly pleasing to Ryan, he exhaustingly prepared his body for starting instead of relieving. Wilson logged 204 innings and won 15 games.

Lewis is the stoic, balding right-hander who dons eyeglasses after games and looks more like a tax accountant than a World Series hurler. He threw 201 innings, struck out 196, and with better run support his 12 wins could have been 16 or more in his follow-up to hitting rock bottom and landing in Japan for two seasons.

Manager Ron Washington said Monday he doesn't expect to alter his rotation, meaning Wilson, Lewis and Tommy Hunter, in that order, would follow Lee.

"I think it's mindset. It's, 'What are your expectations of yourself?'" pitching coach Mike Maddux said of Wilson's and Lewis' seasons. "They have a good wherewithal of what they can and cannot do with the ball. I think we challenge guys that you should be a better pitcher tomorrow because of what you learned today, and I think they really bought into that."

Then there's probable Game 4 starter Tommy Hunter. The 273-pound, free-spirited Indianan played four years of high school football and looks as if he should have been a defensive end in the Big Ten instead of a pitcher in the SEC (Alabama). The 24-year-old had a fast ride through the minors, finished his first stint in the big leagues with a 16.36 ERA and never forgot it.

He went 13-4 this year after returning from injury and a short trip to the minors in June. He is the lone starter looking for his first quality start in the playoffs, which has led Washington to at least consider starting young lefty Derek Holland, who has found playoff success in middle relief. Still, Hunter is expected to get another shot.

"We didn't have that established rotation that you get with New York or someone like that," Wilson said. "If you would have known the kind of guy Colby is and seen him throw you would know he was capable of that, and for me it's the same way. He came from playing two years in Japan. That's a long way removed from the AL Championship Series.

"At one point we were all kind of people that were not household names. Our staff is made up of guys on the way up, guys in transition, guys learning how to do it."

Still, things were going surprisingly well.

And then Cliff Lee came to town and they got even better.

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