- Howard Bryant, Senior Writer
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NEW YORK -- It is Monday, Oct. 18, and Mike Francesa, the well-known New York sports-radio host, is tired. He's tired of the latest team with no profile and no history challenging the history-laden New York Yankees, evidenced by his commenting the Rangers play in a place that only cares about football and "haven't won anything in a million years."
But mostly, Francesa and his listenership on this afternoon are tired of Cliff Lee, the Texas Rangers' ace, who will take the mound in Game 3 this evening. They are tired of the hype, of the anointing. Lee is a good pitcher, perhaps a great one, or perhaps he's another pretender to the throne. But these are the Yankees, winners of today, of yesterdays, and at $200 million in payroll, likely of tomorrows, the team that in the postseason has vanquished the likes of Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux, Cole Hamels and John Smoltz. Lee is supposed to be the next Bob Gibson, Francesa says, but so was Josh Beckett.
Respect, in other words, is not a commodity easy to come by for the Rangers, but as October winds down the Rangers have grown up, arriving home after three revealing games at Yankee Stadium one win from dethroning the defending champs, one win from the World Series.
Scared? We're not scared. There's no reason to be scared. We do this every day. Scared is being in a prison yard.
”-- Rangers third baseman Michael Young
On levels personal and collective, the Rangers' first American League Championship Series has been marked by the twin themes of respect and credibility, a certain desperation to belong to a place denied them by their historical mediocrity, respect that cannot be given but only taken by winning here, on the most legendary stage.
The Rangers arrived in New York, expected to crumble under the weight of the new and rarefied thinning atmosphere of October baseball coupled with their bitter collapse in Game 1 and responded by taking a 3-1 lead in games.
Facing elimination at home, the Yankees awoke in Game 5, destroying the Rangers 7-2 in a game in which the Rangers frustrated themselves by hitting and not scoring, but after four days in New York the Rangers rewrote the narrative of this ALCS and find themselves in a position they have never been in before: a game away from the World Series with two home games to play and the greatest weapon in the game -- Cliff Lee -- on the mound for a potential Game 7.
"Scared? We're not scared. There's no reason to be scared," said Rangers third baseman Michael Young. "We do this every day. Scared is being in a prison yard."
Sunday: Workout day, Yankee Stadium
Respect and credibility are common themes. The Texas Rangers came into being in 1972 as a refugee from Washington, a second-time loser of a city that could neither win nor draw as an American League city. The Minnesota Twins were first to leave the city, in 1961, and the American League quickly replaced them with another expansion team that lasted in the capital only 11 seasons. Ted Williams was the first manager, an experiment that ended poorly. The Rangers needed 24 years to make the playoffs and in each playoff season -- in 1996, 1998 and 1999 -- lost to the Yankees.
Washington speaks of what the organization craves: to be in the act. Nolan Ryan will, too, as will partner Chuck Greenberg. The Rangers suffer from the inferiority complex of not being top shelf. They want to belong.
"I'm not stupid," Washington said. "Those guys over there, they're the defending champs. They have 40 [expletive] pennants. But what I try to tell our guys is that it doesn't matter who is better. All we have to do is be better on that day. The best team doesn't always win. The team that is better on that day is the one that wins. Be that team."
The day before Lee is to take the mound, Washington is talking about belief, about the game against Tampa Bay when his closer, Neftali Feliz, seemed as though the moment of playoff baseball was devouring him. Feliz was faltering badly in Game 3 against the Rays. The pitching coach, Mike Maddux, began to walk the stairs to talk to the pitcher. Washington intercepted him and went to the mound himself.
"I told him, 'Belief is an extraordinary thing. And you can achieve amazing things if you believe. Now, I believe in you. These guys behind you believe in you. But that's not important. Here's what's important: do you believe in you?'
"When I touched his shoulder, he was stiff as a board. He was tight. He was nervous. When I got done talking, he calmed down. He relaxed. And then he went out and got the next guy. He didn't get the results, but he wasn't afraid anymore."
Washington does not pretend that pressure doesn't exist. He recalls the week before the season ended, when the Rangers clinched but weren't sure if they would begin the postseason with the Rays or the Yankees.
"I told people I preferred to play Tampa Bay. It wasn't because I was afraid of New York. If you want to be the best you have to beat the best eventually," Washington said. "But I didn't want my guys for their first playoff experience going into Yankee Stadium. I'm not saying it would've been too much, but it could've been.
"When we went to Tampa, there were like three people in the interview room. On the field, it was empty. That allowed our guys to ease into it, to get the feel. After that, I knew we were ready."
Monday, Oct. 18: Rangers 8, Yankees 0
ON THE 59th STREET UPTOWN PLATFORM at Columbus Circle, where D express and B local trains will head to Yankee Stadium and the A train rushes through Harlem, the cop wants to know one thing:
"Do you think the Yankees can get to Cliff Lee tonight?"
The day belongs to Lee, from Francesa on the radio to the cops on the subway to the buzz in the crowd and from the grizzled professionals -- the scouts, the ex-players, the tired scribes -- who have seen it all and are growing weary of a legend they think is being constructed prematurely.
"I'm hearing all the comparisons to Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax, but Cliff Lee just can't throw his glove out there and win," Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan said. "The thing about the Yankee lineup is that they can get hot with one swing. [Mark] Teixeira isn't swinging the bat well, but he can get hot with one swing of the bat. Alex Rodriguez can get hot with one swing of the bat. He's going to have to earn it, you know."
By the end of the night, Lee has struck out 13 Yankees and the air around his name is thin. He is the first pitcher in big league history to have three consecutive 10-strikeout games in a single postseason. Only Gibson -- in 1967 and '68 -- has ever had three consecutive 10-strikeout postseason games. He trails only Sandy Koufax and Christy Mathewson for the lowest earned run average in postseason history. In Game 5 of the Division Series, he already surpassed Koufax and Gibson for most strikeouts in a deciding game.
"It doesn't sound so crazy, him being in that company anymore," Young said. "He's got big stones, too."
During the night, the Yankees' opportunities to overcome a Josh Hamilton first-inning, two-run home run are snuffed by Lee, striking out Derek Jeter in the sixth with a runner on second (the only runner who reached scoring position against him all night). Lee struck out three of the final four batters he faced.
The final score is 8-0. Perhaps of even more concern is the six-run ninth inning off of a shell-shocked Yankees bullpen that shattered a taut 2-0 game and turned a tough, wonderful performance by Andy Pettitte into white noise.
Nor is the game within the game lost upon anyone in either clubhouse: Lee is a free agent at the end of the season and the Yankees, having faced Lee three times in the postseason and having been beaten each time, will certainly covet him, and the credibility the Rangers seek can't be realized only by winning on the field, but requires winning the free-agent game, as well.
During the workout day, Lee referred to the Yankees as "an all-star team," and he will be the prize of the free-agent market.
"How much will it cost to keep Cliff, Nolan?"
"Go across the hall and ask them," Nolan Ryan said. "I think he got their attention tonight."
Tuesday, Oct. 19: Rangers 10, Yankees 3
THE RANGERS ARE A VICTORY FROM A WORLD SERIES, and seemingly more importantly, from the respect that has gnawed at each of them in different ways.
Infielders Young and Ian Kinsler have chafed for days at the idea that the Rangers would be frightened of the moment, unable to regain their composure after the bitter Game 1 loss, and now having won three straight games feel validated that the Yankee mystique did not wilt their resolve. Derek Holland, who pitched 3 2/3 innings of scoreless relief, admitted to the nerves of playing on the legendary stage. Bengie Molina hits the game-winning homer after beleaguered manager Joe Girardi walks David Murphy to face him. The Rangers' knees are not knocking in the Bronx. They are embarrassing the defending champions.
"Nobody cares about us," Molina said. "We're supposed to lose."
Surging toward the pennant, Chuck Greenberg reveals that he wanted to play the Yankees all along.
"I wanted to play the Yankees for completely separate reasons," Greenberg said. "I thought we had a compelling story to tell and I wanted to do it on the biggest stage. In hindsight, there's no question that Wash was correct, that to gradually prepare us for this environment was the proper course -- but being here and winning here was the only way people would ever recognize just what this organization has done."
The Yankees are stunned at the star turn they are witnessing, from the transcendent Hamilton (two more home runs), to the consistent, redeemed Young (a bases-loaded snare of a Lance Berkman hotshot that ended a Yankee threat in the eighth).
In the middle of it all there is Washington, who does not feel he is respected for his managing ability by the national press. He seeks peace in the results but suffers from the same complex as his ball club historically.
He is redeemed for his transgressions of last year -- he tested positive for cocaine -- and at times cannot help but wonder if his contract will not be renewed because of lingering hard feelings.
"I'm at peace. I really am. I understand if there are some people who cannot forgive. It was my fault. I did it," Washington said. "All I asked of Jon [Daniels] was that he gave me a chance to save my reputation, and he did. For that, I will always consider him a friend. I told him if there's a problem with me, not for him to get in the middle of it on my behalf. He's done enough and I'm grateful to him."
In victory, Greenberg says the organization is in agreement that Washington is valued and that when the Rangers -- Daniels and Ryan, especially -- supported the decision to retain the manager in 2009, the matter was closed.
Should the Rangers advance, Washington will not join Yogi Berra, Chuck Dressen and Dusty Baker as part of the select group of managers who took their clubs to the World Series only to be out of a job after the season.
Greenberg says Washington's contract is "done," just with final details being worked out.
"The ultimate hypocrisy would've been to make a decision you thought was right when no one knew about it and then reverse it when everyone found out," Greenberg said. "That would've been wrong. That would've been weak."
Wednesday, Oct. 20: Yankees 7, Rangers 2
A DAY EARLIER, Keith Olbermann, the television host for the MSNBC program "Hardball," shook Ron Washington's hand and the two had a friendly conversation. Olbermann reminded Washington that the Yankees, being the Yankees, can often only be defeated by the paranormal. "They're like vampires over there," he told Washington, the implication being championship teams unless properly vanquished find a way to rise and revive; the Rangers must not give the Yankees any form of momentum that will give them hope.
The energy at the Stadium is odd, uneven. This is an elimination game. The Yankees' season could end in a few hours. Joe Girardi says he sees in his players' eyes a certain determination that was lacking over the previous three consecutive losses. Chuck Greenberg is surrounded in a pregame scrum, conducting interviews that remind the veterans with the longest memories that the closer to the World Series a team gets the more the ground seems to give way.
If Ryan two days earlier suggested that the Yankees would dictate the Cliff Lee free-agent market, Greenberg, emboldened by four triumphant days in New York, is unwilling to cede his assets easily.
"Well, we aren't going into negotiations with a pea shooter," he said.
The only way to beat the Yankees, Olbermann told Washington, was to drive a stake through their hearts. Washington, of course, knows this, having been the third-base coach on the 2001 Oakland A's club that won the first two games of the Division Series at Yankee Stadium only to lose three in a row.
In what could have been the final game of New York baseball in 2010, the Rangers for the first time at the Stadium are short, and the Yankees remind them what a championship pedigree actually looks like. CC Sabathia, the Yankees' ace, Tiant-style, surrenders 11 hits in just six innings. The Rangers record a hit in eight of nine innings, and are buried 7-2. The Yankees hit three home runs, C.J. Wilson gets buried early and the Yankees remain alive.
Sabathia pitched like an ace -- imperfect but resolute, determined that the season would not end on his watch.
"That's what you play for, to have the chance to win a championship," Sabathia said. "Our backs were up against the wall today and I just wanted to fight, no matter what the situation was, no matter how many runners were on base in any given inning."
The Rangers packed and left New York, having passed the midterm of proving they belonged in New York, in October, with the final exam -- winning one of the next two games -- awaiting them in Texas.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42
Emboldened after taking two of three games from the defending-champion Yankees in the Bronx, the Rangers find themselves in a position they have never been in before.