By Adam Kilgore
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 10:54 PM
ARLINGTON, TEX. - Late Friday night, in the quiet of their home clubhouse, Texas Rangers players vowed, with nonchalant certainty and no trace of panic, that they would bounce back. "There were no pep talks," reliever Darren O'Day said. "We know we're better than we were yesterday."
They promised, after the New York Yankees stole Game 1, that it would not happen again.
Saturday afternoon, they provided themselves an opportunity to prove it. Again, the Rangers seized a big lead in the opening innings. Again, they sent the Yankees starter to an early shower. Again, Manager Ron Washington called for new relief pitchers like a blackjack player pulling 2s and 3s from the deck.
"You can obviously feel the same situation," Rangers reliever Clay Rapada said. "Yesterday was a different game. Today was another different game."
And the Rangers were right. They were better, and they toppled the Yankees, 7-2, at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington to even the American League Championship series at 1-1 and capture their first victory ever in a home playoff game. And so on Monday, in New York, the Rangers will send Cliff Lee to the mound with a chance to take the series lead.
The Rangers pounded 12 hits and knocked out the Yankees' starter - this time Phil Hughes - in less than five innings for the second straight game. Most important, their bullpen, the one the Yankees thrashed the night before, recorded 10 outs and allowed no runs. About 15 hours after they blew Game 1, the Rangers showed up Saturday afternoon and played like it never happened.
How did they know they would? Well, these Rangers have played through worse. In spring training, they digested the revelation that their manager failed a drug test with cocaine in his system. In May, the team declared bankruptcy amid a drawn-out ownership change. In September, Josh Hamilton, their best player, got hurt and missed 24 consecutive games.
"We always stay in the moment," Washington said. "We've been trying to get them to stay in the moment for four years."
The reward for their latest show of resilience is an ALCS that has swung in their favor. They still have to beat the Yankees three out of five games, have to overcome a lineup that keeps coming at you like a horror-movie villain that just won't die, not even after you set it on fire and run it over with a pick-up truck.
But consider two things. First, the Rangers dominated both games in Texas. "Realistically," O'Day said, "we should be up 2-0." Second, if the Rangers win only the games scheduled to be started by Lee and the Yankees' A.J. Burnett, the team once known as the Washington Senators will advance to the World Series.
"We're never going to feel like we have control until we win a game," second baseman Ian Kinsler said. "But it's really nice having Cliff on the mound. He's the guy that we want out there. I think [the Yankees] understand that."
The most pivotal moment of Saturday's pivotal game came in the sixth inning. Rangers starter Colby Lewis exited with two outs in the sixth, with two men on base and Brett Gardner coming to the plate. Washington motioned out to the bullpen, toward the perpetrators of Saturday's ruinous eighth inning.
"It's never really easy to turn the page and not think about what happened," said reliever Darren Oliver, one of three pitchers who recorded no outs Friday. "You have to."
The first man through the bullpen gates was left-hander Rapada. On Friday, he threw one pitch, a fastball that Robinson Cano drilled to center for a game-tying single. On Saturday, he entered to retire Gardner, a lefty, and Marcus Thames pinch-hit.
"I didn't feel like the entire pressure of the bullpen was on me," Rapada said. "I just felt like, I need to go out there and set the tone. I'm not just going give into hitters."
The lesson Rapada culled from Friday's night collapse, he said, was that "when the wheels are turning, they're going to jump on that first, easy strike." Alex Rodriguez and Cano had all delivered crucial hits on first-pitch fastballs. Rapada would not let it happen again. He threw Thames a first-pitch curveball.
"Sure enough," Rapada said, "he jumped on it."
And Thames missed. Rapada would throw Thames nine pitches, only one fastball. Rapada's ninth pitch was a slow curveball. Thames swung over it, then tossed his bat in the air and swatted it down.
The Yankees would not have a better chance to get back into the game. Five relievers, three of whom were culprits in Friday's debacle, recorded 10 outs: Rapada, Alexi Ogando, Oliver, O'Day and Neftali Feliz. Together, they yielded four walks, one single, zero runs and no drama.
The Rangers scored their first run in the first inning, by reprising the bold base running that sent them into the ALCS. With Elvis Andrus on third after a steal and Josh Hamilton on first after a walk, Washington called for a double steal.
Washington had called the play three times this year, and it had worked only once. How did he know it would work Saturday?
"I didn't," he said. But "the opportunity was there," Washington said. "It was set up perfect, as far as I was concerned."
He believed Posada would throw through to second base. He gave Hamilton a sign to get caught in a rundown, which would allow Andrus, one of the fastest players in baseball, time to score.
"If Posada fakes it, I'm [dead]," Washington said. "But he didn't, because he was told to throw through."
Cano's throw home sailed wide, and Andrus slid home safely. He became the first player to steal home in the postseason since Brad Fullmer in Game 2 of the 2002 World Series.
"It surprised me," Kinsler said. "For Wash to be able to come up with that and to put that on was huge."
From there, the Rangers pummeled Hughes and handed the ball to their bullpen. Feliz, the fire-balling rookie many observers thought should have appeared at some point Friday, recorded the final three outs. He whipped 99-mph fastballs at the Yankees and handed Derek Jeter his third strikeout of the game. The ferocity of Feliz's pitches sent the same message as the nerve of the Rangers.
Maybe, as "Empire State of Mind" blared in the Rangers clubhouse, the series shifted to New York and Lee readied to take the stage, it was time for the Yankees to worry.