By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 10:46 PM
NEW YORK - The vibe around Yankee Stadium on Wednesday afternoon felt suspiciously like surrender. As the ceremonial first pitches were thrown - by Aaron Boone and Bucky Dent, a not-so-subtle acknowledgment of the miracle the situation required - thousands of empty seats dotted the stands. The Texas Rangers must have sensed it, too, because they sent out a news release inviting fans back home to greet the presumably triumphant team at the airport late Wednesday night.
But in the New York Yankees' clubhouse, there was nothing of the sort. Everyone else saw the Yankees as needing three wins to survive the American League Championship Series. The Yankees saw themselves as only needing one - this one.
And with a 7-2 victory over the Rangers in Game 5, the Yankees fulfilled the day's mission. It could not have gone much better. Their bats finally broke out of a week-long slump. They played nearly flawless defense, and the only pitchers who took the mound for them were CC Sabathia, Kerry Wood and Mariano Rivera.
Things still don't look great for the Yankees. They still trail in the series, 3-2. They still have to win back-to-back games this weekend in Texas, the second of which would be started by October uber-ace Cliff Lee. But - shhhhhhhh. To the Yankees, there is no Game 7 unless they first win Game 6, and that will come Friday night, with New York's Phil Hughes facing Texas's Colby Lewis.
"From the minute I walked in the door, all the way up to when I was done pitching and just sitting in the dugout, there was a different feel today," Wood said. "I don't know how to describe it. It was just different, but it was good. And we'll need it again on Friday."
The Rangers, holding all the momentum and needing just one more win to secure the first World Series appearance in franchise history, should have been loose and confident. Instead, they seemed tight and tentative.
They suffered a defensive meltdown in the second inning, throwing the ball all over the infield, which resulted in two of the Yankees' first three runs. Their starting pitcher, lefty C.J. Wilson, pitched without conviction, walking four batters (three of whom wound up scoring) and nibbling around the outer edges of the strike zone with sometimes disastrous results - such as when Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano hit back-to-back homers in the third.
"A couple bad walks - that's frustrating," Wilson said. "Their broken bats went for hits. That's frustrating. I didn't get ahead in the count. That's frustrating. All that stuff mixed together adds up to a bunch of runs given up."
Perhaps most egregiously, in the seventh, down four runs, Texas leadoff man Elvis Andrus got picked off second base by Wood with the Rangers' best hitter at the plate - an inexplicable mistake that had Yankees fans mocking the Rangers' "antlers" hand gesture that signifies a base-running achievement.
"When his game is flowing," Manager Ron Washington said of Andrus, "he thinks he's invincible."
In the wee hours Wednesday, following the Yankees' ugly loss in Game 4, Yankees Manager Joe Girardi gathered his players in their clubhouse and gave a brief pep talk, the gist of which was: "Just look at tomorrow. Win a game tomorrow."
"There was a determination that we were going to go out and play our game today," Girardi said after the win. "I saw it during [batting practice]. The mood was very businesslike, and we knew what we had to do."
A predicament such as the Yankees' on Wednesday tests the limits of the ubiquitous one-game-at-a-time cliche. It would be human nature to look at the totality of their task - needing to win three straight games, the last of which would be started by Lee - and find it too difficult to even bother.
But the Yankees, living for the moment, played smart, aggressive baseball and allowed the Rangers to beat themselves. In a comically bad play that came to define their day, both right fielder Jeff Francoeur and Wilson threw away easy outs at third base and home, respectively. For the Yankees, it resembled nothing so much as a Little League home run - the kind where you hit the ball and keep running until you're tagged out.
For all his accomplishments and accolades - including 40 wins over the past two seasons and a Cy Young Award in 2007 - Sabathia was fast building a reputation as an October underachiever. He won neither of his starts in the 2009 World Series, made it through just four innings in Game 1 of this series, and toted a career postseason ERA of 4.79 into Wednesday's game.
Sabathia didn't so much seize Game 5 as survive it, giving up 11 hits and barely getting through a 33-pitch sixth inning that saw him load the bases with one out on three straight singles. But Sabathia induced a groundout from Matt Treanor, allowing a run to score, and struck out Mitch Moreland. It was 6-2, and Sabathia's day was done.
"Our backs were up against the wall," Sabathia said, "and I just wanted to fight, no matter the situation."
After bullpen implosions authored by middle relievers the previous two nights, there was no way Girardi was calling on anyone besides Wood and Rivera in the late innings. The former got six outs, including the pickoff of Andrus, and Rivera handled the ninth the same way he has been doing it for the better part of a decade and a half.
Asked if he was surprised his team played so well under such dire circumstances, Rivera looked incredulous. "Surprised?" he said. "How can I be surprised? That's what we do."