Unknowns make Rangers dangerous

While the Yankees and Rays have spent the last week trying to box each other out for the top spot in the AL East – and the Twins are making a final push for the American League’s best record – the Rangers are planning their own special surprise for October.

The team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in a decade “will be more of a threat than people think” according a rival executive. Cliff Lee’s fully recovered from an earlier back injury, and MVP candidate Josh Hamilton is due to return to action this weekend. Those two factors figure to create problems for postseason opponents, particularly for the Yankees if they win the East and face Texas in the ALDS.

The Bombers are understandably wary of Lee, who beat them twice in the World Series last year and again in 2010 with the Mariners. The Rays are probably less intimidated, having conquered Lee three times this season, once since he joined the Rangers.

Either way, however, there’s no denying the cache of the West’s most dominant team. The Angels’ collapse obviously helped the Rangers’ surge, but the 11-game lead is nevertheless notable – it’s the first time in club history Texas has been this far ahead.

Here are a few of the asterisks in the Rangers’ scouting report.

Lee’s winning pedigree: You could almost argue the Rangers didn’t need the great lefthander to finish off the Angels, as they were already were 4 1/2 games ahead when he joined them. Ironically, Lee was smoked in his very first outing in a Rangers uniform, courtesy of the Orioles.

Even after quickly regaining his form – allowing just four earned run in the next 26 1/3 innings – Lee suffered from a debilitating series of muscle spasms in his back, leading to an uncharacteristic 1-4 record and 6.35 ERA in August.

Not only did those numbers raise eyebrows in the Rangers’ front office, the Yankees suddenly started paying attention, too. Scouts were trying to project Lee’s effectiveness as a potential postseason opponent, just as ownership was calibrating his worth as a free agent this winter.

Today, however, Lee’s health issues have become vapor – a post-September ERA of 1.93 was proof of that. His final regular season start against the Angels on Thursday was like seven innings of calisthenics: 93 pitches, one run, four hits, eight strikeouts and no walks (of course).

Lee will finish the season with just 18 walks in 212 innings, making him one of the greatest strike-zone surgeons of all time – 10.28 strikeouts for every base on balls. And now hitters have one more reason to fear him, as he dusted off an infrequently used change-up against the Angels.

"I haven’t used the change-up that much, and it was really effective," he told reporters after the game. "It was a big pitch for me tonight, and it’s going to be big for me going into the postseason."

Lee’s about to make good on a promise to take Texas to new heights in October. Last year, in his own initiation to the postseason, he was 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in five starts. That’s reason enough for the Rangers to think they’re sitting on the upset of the year.

Josh Hamilton’s health: The slugger will make his much-anticipated return to the lineup tonight, his first appearance since Sept. 4. It goes without saying the Rangers need his bat; the only question is how rusty he’ll be after nursing cracked ribs.

Hamilton took 60 swings on Thursday and was able to throw with only “minimal” pain, according to the Fort Worth Star Telegram. He’ll play either left or center field, bat third and will be pulled after six innings. David Murphy, however, won’t play at all this weekend and will instead recuperate from a slight sprain of his left groin muscle.

Ron Washington’s imprint on team: No one will ever mistake Washington as the next-generation’s Tony LaRussa; his in-game strategies are unconventional, at best, illogical at worst. Yet, he’s earned the respect and loyalty of his players, which certainly counts for something under pressure.

Considering the lengths Washington had to go to repair his reputation after confessing to drug-use earlier this year, he’s proven he has thick enough skin for the job. Those qualities appear to have rubbed off on the Rangers.

NEWS ITEM: Yankees ready to skip A.J. Burnett in the Division Series

Yankee fans are probably saying it’s about time, considering Burnett’s won only once in his last 11 starts and practically sabotaged the Bombers’ campaign for the East’s top spot this week.

Burnett’s meltdown against the Blue Jays on Monday – seven runs in 2 1/3 innings – forced CC Sabathia into an emergency start the next night, disrupting his schedule leading up to Game 1 on Wednesday. Burnett, meanwhile, continues to confound ownership, which invested $82.5 million in an arsenal they thought would be close to untouchable.

They couldn’t have been more mistaken this year, as Burnett’s become the worst starter in Bronx history. No Yankee hurler’s ever thrown this many innings (180 2/3) with an ERA this high (5.33).

Joe Girardi’s preparing to announce Sabathia and Andy Pettitte as his Games 1 and 2 starters, with Phil Hughes poised to pitch in Game 3. Should a fourth game be necessary, Burnett will be skipped in favor of Sabathia on short rest. If the series goes to a fifth game, the Yankees will turn to Pettitte, who’s won more postseason games than any pitcher in baseball history.

Burnett will be banished to the bullpen – at least during the first round. But that doesn’t mean he’s finished for the year. Girardi’s believed to be leaning towards using the troubled right-hander yet again if the Yankees get to the ALCS. Shocking, but true.