Josh Hamilton's rise reaches next level

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Josh Hamilton stood in center field before the top of the sixth inning and let his mind wander for a minute.

The Texas Rangers had just scored four runs in the fifth inning to go up 5-1 on the New York Yankees in Game 6 of the ALCS, and Hamilton knew the World Series was in sight.

"I was just thinking about everything -- where I was and my lowest point," Hamilton said. "I never thought anything like this would ever possibly happen."

Hamilton said he starting tearing up in the ninth inning, with the Rangers just a few outs away from the first World Series in club history.

"It's so exciting that it's all come together the way it has," Hamilton said.

Hamilton's story has been told many times over the last few years. He's not shy about sharing it. The top overall pick in 1999, he went from a highly rated prospect to someone who abused drugs and alcohol to the point where he was out of the game. But after finding his faith and rekindling his desire to play baseball, Hamilton has returned to become one of the premier players in the majors.

Now, he's helped lead his team to the World Series, a place the Rangers have never been since the franchise arrived in Arlington in 1972, nine years before Hamilton was born.

For Hamilton, playing well against the Yankees in the ALCS -- well enough to earn MVP honors -- was a kind of redemption. Hamilton missed most of the final month of the season with cracked ribs. He played just three games before the playoffs and looked rusty against the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS. His timing was off and he hit just .111 with just one RBI. It was not the way the probable AL MVP wanted to start his postseason career.

How Hamilton would react to his struggles against Tampa Bay was a major storyline for the ALCS. It was difficult to imagine beating the vaunted Yankees without Hamilton providing a big offensive boost.

He made his presence known in his first at-bat. Against Yankees ace and Cy Young candidate CC Sabathia, Hamilton turned on a slider and hit a laser over the right-field wall. It was 3-0 Rangers, and the message was sent that Texas' biggest bat was going to be around for the series.

Hamilton finished with four homers and seven RBIs in six games against the Yankees. He hit .350 (7-for-20) and had a team-high 20 total bases. Hamilton was also walked eight times -- five intentionally -- setting the record for most in an ALCS. He also stole three bases, living up to his reputation at a complete player.

"He's a difference-maker," manager Ron Washington said. "It's not about the results, it's about his presence. His presence in our lineup makes everyone else better. His presence on the field makes everyone else better."

Yankees manager Joe Girardi got so sick of seeing Hamilton bash balls all over Arlington and the Bronx that he decided to take the bat out of the outfielder's hands in Game 6.

Hamilton was intentionally walked in his final three plate appearances. That put the pressure on Vladimir Guerrero, struggling during the series. The veteran designated hitter came through in the fifth, doubling to center field.

"He had that look in his eyes," Hamilton said. "It was like, 'I'm going to get these guys.'"

But it was the Yankees' fear of Hamilton that gave Guerrero the chance to deliver the big two-RBI hit.

"He was shown a lot of respect and because he was shown that respect, it sort of brought the level of intensity up on everyone else," Washington said. "We are a team and he just didn't get a chance to swing the bat. Vlad did; [Nelson] Cruz did, and we put some runs on the board."

Hamilton's 2010 season has earned him that kind of respect. His postseason didn't start the way he wanted. But the same breaking pitches that garnered swings and misses from Hamilton in Tampa Bay were balls against the Yankees. He stayed away from pitches he didn't like and crushed the ones he did. And even when the Yankees wouldn't let him swing, he still had an impact.

That's what MVPs do. And that's what the Rangers need from Hamilton in the World Series, the biggest stage in the game.

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.