Potential playoff preview provides hope for Texas
Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington tried real hard to play down the significance of a three-game sweep of the New York Yankees.
''They're one of the best teams in the game, and we played for three days better than they did,'' Washington said. ''It's just obvious on certain days that we can play with anybody. That's all it meant.''
Except if his AL West-leading team can do that again next month, Texas could win a playoff series for the first time. Even if the Rangers again have to face New York, the team that knocked them out of the postseason all three times they made it in the late 1990s.
''You want to go into the postseason on a good note and feeling good about where everything is,'' said Cliff Lee, who limited the team with the top record in the majors to two hits in eight-plus innings in Sunday's 4-1 finale. ''If we play like we did this series, we're going to continue to do that.''
With three weeks left in the regular season, the Rangers (80-63) went into Monday's off-day with an 8 1/2-game division lead over Oakland. They have a five-game winning streak since losing five in a row.
''They can hit, pitch and play defense. We knew they were good coming in,'' Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.
The potential postseason preview made for a wild weekend. The Rangers rallied to win a pair of marathon games in their last at-bat before their left-handed ace acquisition finally looked like his old self again.
''At this point in the season, where we are, if we would've swept anybody it would be big,'' said Julio Borbon, whose two-out bunt single Sunday drove in the tiebreaking run. ''We're in a playoff mentality.''
Texas won the opener 6-5 on Nelson Cruz's homer leading off the 13th, after he tied it with a homer in the eighth. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera hit a batter with the bases loaded in the ninth early Sunday morning to give Texas a 7-6 win in a game that took more than four hours to play, not counting the hour-long rain delay.
''We got away with a couple of games, honestly. They had a lot of guys in scoring position and they weren't able to get a big hit. So we caught some breaks,'' said second baseman Ian Kinsler, who has played only 10 games since returning from his second disabled list stint this season. ''Our pitchers did a nice job.''
Lee, acquired July 9 from Seattle, pitched for the first time since having an injection in his sore back after going 1-4 with a 6.35 ERA in seven August starts.
His performance Sunday was more like the left-hander who last year twice pitched Philadelphia past the Yankees in the World Series. And what the Rangers anticipated getting for their first playoff push since 1999.
''I felt great. My arm felt good,'' Lee said. ''I'm hoping it continues to feel that way.''
That certainly is what the Rangers hope, since Washington has already said Lee will start the regular season finale Oct. 3 against the Los Angeles Angels and then the first game of the playoffs. The start against the Angels will be a short one if the division title is already clinched, as expected without a monumental collapse.
If Texas and New York play again in October, the Rangers certainly won't avoid facing CC Sabathia, the 19-game winner who started Monday night at Tampa Bay, or Andy Pettitte if he is back from a left groin injury. Plus, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez won't be getting games off like they did over the weekend.
Then again, the Rangers were without slugger Josh Hamilton, the majors' leading hitter (.361 average, 31 home runs, 97 RBIs) and setup reliever Frank Francisco (strained muscle in right side).
Hamilton hasn't played since bruising his right ribcage when he crashed into an outfield wall making a catch Sept. 4 at Minnesota. The layoff, though, is helping him heal other nagging shoulder, back and knee problems before the postseason.
When the Rangers made the playoffs for the first time in 1996, they won their first game. Juan Gonzalez and Dean Palmer homered in the same inning and John Burkett threw a complete game in a 6-2 victory at old Yankee Stadium.
Texas hasn't won a playoff game since, losing the next three in the 1996 series before being swept by the Yankees in the best-of-five ALDS in 1998 and 1999.
The only current player who has been in a playoff game for the Rangers is Darren Oliver, the 39-year-old reliever who returned this season for his third stint in Texas. The left-hander lost Game 3 as a starter in the 1996 series.
After two games at home this week against Detroit, the Rangers have five series against their AL West foes. They head West to play Seattle, Los Angeles and Oakland, then wrap up the regular season at home against the Mariners and Angels.
That is all that is left after the Yankees series that Washington described as ''intense'' and confirmed what he said he already knew about his team.
''That they're resilient and they can play baseball,'' Washington said. ''We played as good as baseball this weekend as you can play. ... We're very happy that we won, and we're very happy it was the Yankees, but we're not going to make any more of it than three games.''
Maybe next month.