By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 12:33 AM
NEW YORK - The story line that was taking shape Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium was preposterous - and ultimately, for the New York Yankees, too good to be true. The most maligned pitcher on their roster, pitching for the simple reason there was no other viable option, was on the verge of rescuing their season. Derek Jeter was knocking balls off the wall. The ghost of Jeffrey Maier even rose from his seat above the right-field wall to make a critical play.
And then, with one swing of the bat - Bengie Molina, the Texas Rangers' burly catcher, off A.J. Burnett - everything changed. Burnett and the Yankees did not win, and they did not square up the American League Championship Series. They lost, 10-3, in Game 4, their bullpen once again turning things ugly late, and they are in a world of trouble now.
Behind Molina's game-changing three-run homer in the sixth inning and 3 2/3 brilliant innings of relief from left-hander Derek Holland, the Rangers moved to within one victory of the first World Series appearance in franchise history. They can clinch the AL pennant as soon as Wednesday afternoon, when they will send left-hander C.J. Wilson to the mound against Yankees ace CC Sabathia.
The Yankees' only path for advancing appears virtually impossible: win three straight games, the last two of which would be at Texas, and the last of which would be started by Cliff Lee, the Rangers' October destroyer. Oh, and they likely would have to accomplish all that without Mark Teixeira, their slugging first baseman, who suffered a badly strained hamstring.
Should the Yankees lose, their fans will be replaying Tuesday night's fateful sixth inning - which began as the final statement of Burnett's triumphant recovery from the abyss, and ended as an open invitation to second-guess Manager Joe Girardi - in their nightmares. Despite the lopsided final score, the game was very much winnable at that point.
The Yankees led by a run, 3-2, when the inning began, and there were two outs and the tying run on second base when Girardi had Burnett intentionally walk David Murphy, a left-handed hitter. Now the go-ahead runs were on base, with Molina coming to the plate. Joba Chamberlain was ready in the Yankees' bullpen. Girardi and bench coach Tony Pena consulted their charts and stat sheets in the dugout.
And they left Burnett in the game.
On TV, TBS had barely finished showing a montage of Molina's three homers against the Yankees in the 2005 AL Division Series, as a member of the Los Angeles Angels, when Molina yanked Burnett's first pitch - a 92-mph fastball on the inside half of the plate - into the seats in left, just inside the foul pole. The Rangers led, 5-3. On the mound, Burnett placed both hands atop his head, stunned.
Was the intentional walk of Murphy the right move? On the one hand, Molina was both the less-dangerous hitter and the better matchup, and there was a base open, but on the other hand it broke a cardinal baseball rule that says you should never put the go-ahead run on base.
Perhaps the bigger sin was the long leash given to Burnett - who, after all, had endured a miserable season and had not won a game in precisely 82 days - during the pivotal sequence. Chamberlain was ready to start the inning. He was ready when Burnett allowed a leadoff single to Vladimir Guerrero. He was ready before the intentional walk, and ready after it.
Had Girardi lifted Burnett at that point, leading by one run, the latter undoubtedly would have left the field triumphantly to a standing ovation, having exceeded anyone's expectations for the night. His career might have come to be defined by his gutsy performance.
Instead, Molina homered, and when Burnett finally made it off the mound at the end of the inning - yes, he faced one more batter after the Molina homer - he was serenaded with boos.
An inning later, when the Yankees' bullpen produced its nightly late-inning meltdown - with Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton homering off Boone Logan, and Chamberlain going double-walk-single to let in another run - the crowd of 49,977 began thinning out considerably. It was 7-3.
What was left of the crowd got to see the Yankees bring the tying run to the plate with one out in the bottom of the eighth, thanks to a trio of walks allowed by the Rangers' own problematic bullpen. But against Darren Oliver, the Rangers' 40-year-old left-hander, Nick Swisher flied out to shallow center and Lance Berkman grounded out sharply to third.
Beyond Molina's homer, nobody was more central to the Rangers' win than Holland, the baby-faced, 24-year-old left-hander who spent a good chunk of the season in their rotation before being relegated to the bullpen for the postseason. He entered in relief of starter Tommy Hunter in the bottom of the fourth inning and plowed through the Yankees' lineup, at one point retiring eight straight batters, ensuring there would be no monumental comeback.
Not only was there no comeback for the Yankees, there was no relief whatsoever - from the relentless Rangers, from the second-guessing, or from the ever-ticking doomsday clock that measures what is left of their season.