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With win in ALCS Game 5, Yankees might have found their stride

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; 11:27 PM

NEW YORK

After waiting for 39 years, Texas has truly earned its moment of ginger-ale celebration if the Rangers go to the World Series. It's just not appropriate that folks in Yankee Stadium, who've enjoyed pennant-winning parties 45 times, should get to watch their show.

So, in a sense, the Yankees merely helped extend the most compelling available script in this American League Championship Series by winning Game 5, 7-2, to send this theater disguised as baseball back to Texas for its final chapter.

Or two.

See, that's the problem. When the Yanks win, even just a game to stay alive, they always want to make it a habit. It's their nature.

Manager Joe Girardi said of his Yanks that he "saw something in their eyes" before this game and it was "determination" and guess what, "character," too. Of course, it didn't hurt that Girardi saw a dozen players who'll make $9 million to $31 million this season.

Unfortunately for their foes, the Yankees really do have determination and athletic character, plus obscene amounts of talent. That's how they got those contracts for $250 million (Alex Rodriguez), $189 million (Derek Jeter), $180 million (injured Mark Teixeira) and right on down to the paltry $161 million deal that brought CC Sabathia to New York so he could win games like this one, although he did allow 11 hits in his six victorious innings.

If the Rangers actually do shock baseball and reach the World Series after winning only 90 games, tied for eighth best in the game with San Diego, a team that didn't make the playoffs, then they are going to get full credit now. Because the Yankees are awake.

"We have not played particularly well in this series, to say the least," Girardi said. "I've talked all year about how resilient this team is. I told them we've won three in a row before this season. . . . It was just nice to go out and play a good game. There is a feeling of confidence."

This is the kind of game when a staggered champion can get its feet under it and watch its slumping hitters find their timing. Cold Curtis Granderson had a single, double and homer. Nick Swisher, who's looked lost in nearly 100 plate appearances in a dismal postseason career, conked a long home run to left field off Texas loser C.J. Wilson. The Rangers' lefty was wild early, issuing two walks that scored, then found too much of the plate, giving up back-to-back homers to Swisher and scalding Robinson Cano.

After losing their three previous games of this series by a stunning combined score of 25-5, the Yankees regained some dignity. But have they actually done even more than that?

There's only one problem with this quixotic and, to many fans, intoxicating idea of Texas beating the Yanks to reach its first World Series in the 50-season history of the franchise going back to its birth as the expansion Washington Senators in '61. As the Rangers reminded us in this game, they aren't a terribly good team.

Oh, they're a nice club. Their team speed, combined with the best team batting average in the game, means that they can play little ball with anybody. They have normal power for a playoff team and lots of lefty pitching to annoy the Bombers.

But the Rangers are also raw and ragged in spots. They threw the ball all over the park on a comic play when lumbering Yankees catcher Jorge Posada should have been thrown out by 10 feet at third base, then, a few seconds later, should have been tossed out by 10 yards at home plate. But third baseman Michael Young botched an easy catch-and-tag, then Wilson retrieved the ball and threw it wild to home. For the rest of this series, was that omen or aberration?

Texas has a 22-year-old leading off (Elvis Andrus) and a 22-year-old as closer (Neftali Feliz). And their roster has inexplicable voids that make you realize the Rangers didn't think they were quite ready to reach an ALCS-clinching game yet. Come on, any postseason team has to have a right-handed hitting first baseman it can trust to put in the lineup against Sabathia. Texas went with a left-handed hitting rookie and batted him ninth.

Except for their three true superstars, the Rangers don't look too much different from plenty of bumptious second-division teams, even the Orioles. A .359-hitting batting champion (Josh Hamilton), a 115-RBI cleanup hitter (Vlad Guerrero) and an ace like Cliff Lee who has the third-best postseason ERA after Sandy Koufax and Christy Mathewson can make an amazing difference.

However, the Rangers also have a secret weapon. They may have one of the most civilized, even-keeled temperaments of any franchise in sports. They've been a laughingstock so long that maybe it has taught them a different kind of character that's long on patience, tolerance and charity.

This is the team that did not fire Manager Ron Washington when he failed an MLB drug test last summer for cocaine. He apologized and meant it. They valued him and forgave him. This is the team that, out of deep respect for Hamilton's many years of fighting drug addiction and substance abuse, did not openly celebrate the first postseason win in its history with the customary champagne. Instead, they used ginger ale so Hamilton could be fully included. And this is a team that is loaded with civic-minded veterans like Young and kicks troublemakers (Vicente Padilla) out of its clubhouse.

Oh, and the Rangers also have their "Claws and Antlers" going for them. Lots of teams try to drum up gimmicks to boost spirit (and marketing sales). But the goofy Texas celebrations are pure grass roots from within the team; players put their hands up over their heads to make (deer) antlers to applaud a speed play. Why a "claw" gesture with your hands stands for a good offensive play - "claw your way back" perhaps - is still shrouded in mythology.

Combine all these traits, and put them under Washington's calm guidance, and you may have a merely-pretty-good-club that can actually dethrone a reigning world champion with the highest payroll ($214 million) in Yankee history.

"Well, it's not disappointing. It's a seven-game series," said Washington, who truly does stay even keel no matter what and considers poise in defeat "part of a winning attitude."

"Those guys over there are champs. We didn't expect them to lay down. They won today. We didn't give it to them," Washington said. "In Texas" - where the Rangers were 51-30 this regular season - "we will be ready to go Friday, give it our best and at the end of nine just hope we have more runs than they have."

And if they don't win on Friday, the Rangers have one of the most brilliant Plan Bs in baseball history scheduled for Saturday.

His name is Cliff Lee.

Or, if you are a Yankee, that would be "Mr. Lee" to you.

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