Is this happening? With each blast of a Rangers boom-stick, the thought of being a game away from a pennant became a clearer and clearer picture. Yes, the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers bullpen answered its critics and atoned for what has been the only solid inning by the Yankees of the entire series. Derek Holland tossed 3 and 2/3 innings of relief to earn the win as Texas pulled away for a 10-3 victory in Game 4, pushing the New York Yankees to the brink of elimination. And while I'm sure the entire borough of the Bronx, not to mention all the Manhattanites as well, are buzzing about why the Yankees didn't pitch CC Sabathia on short rest instead of throwing AJ Burnett into the fire.
But until Bengie Molina's three-run homerun that leapfrogged Texas ahead of New York, Burnett had been pitching very effectively for the Yankees. He kept the Rangers off balance early, however all the fears of Yankees fans were realized not five seconds after TBS finished showing a montage of Molina's three homeruns from the 2005 ALDS against New York. Montage over. Bengie crushes one. Burnett goes bye bye.
Texas never looked back.
And now the Rangers face Sabathia with a chance to clinch a berth to (I can't believe I'm actually typing these words right now) the World Series.
THE WORLD SERIES!
Nothing is ever over, and 3-1 leads are by no means a guarantee. Heck, even the Yankees know that a 3-0 lead isn't a lock after they allowed the Red Sox to come back in the 2004 ALCS. But the Rangers have to be feeling good about their chances. They have beaten Sabathia before, so they shouldn't be intimidated this time around. They have overcome the Yankee Stadium mystique in the first two games. It can happen again. They have gotten the production from the heart of the order, their 2-3-4 hitters, that struggled against Tampa Bay.
They are one game away. Is it really happening?
Texas has outscored New York, 30-11, in this series. Subtract the big five-run eighth inning from Game 1 of the series, and the New York offense has been near impotent in the ALCS. And while that's not to say the Yankees bats won't wake up in time for today's afternoon affair in Game 5, it certainly means they would need to heat up in a hurry.
Josh Hamilton has been woken from his ALDS slumber, and he has been bringing the lumber. Two homeruns last night brought his total to four in this series.
But the most impressive feat that the Rangers accomplished last night was something that helped propel them past Tampa Bay in the first two games of the Division Series. The Rangers kept their composure in the face of controversy.
The Rangers have been the beneficiaries of bad breaks in this postseason (Michael Young's checked swing that could have been strike three being immediately followed by a game-breaking three-run homerun comes to mind), and when those moments happened, the Rays had a near mental meltdown. Fast forward to Game 4 last night and Texas saw two questionable homeruns go against them. Manager Ron Washington argued Robinson Cano's homerun that a fan knocked away from the glove of Nellie Cruz. While the umpires did not choose to go to replay on that particular play, they did overturn a homerun later in that second inning that was actually a foul ball off the bat of Lance Berkman.
Texas battled back after the two controversial homeruns, with only one of them standing, to respond immediately in the next inning. The Rangers sacrificed runners on first and second into scoring position off a Mitch Moreland bunt, and Elvis Andrus grounded out to cash David Murphy. Michael Young then hit the world's softest single, an infield flubber that brought home Molina to give the Rangers the lead.
Where other teams might have faltered, the Yankees did what Yankees do and went back to work in the bottom of the third frame. Derek Jeter, who apparently has played in the post season before?, tripled off the top of the centerfield wall and Curtis Granderson singled him home one batter later. The Yanks chased the Rangers starter Tommy Hunter from the game in the bottom of the fourth inning after loading the bases against him. Derek Holland induced a ground ball between short and third that Andrus made a diving stab at and was able to throw to Michael Young at 3B for the force out. The Yankees might have put the go-ahead run across, but to only get one run with the bases loaded and one out from that offense, Texas dodged a pretty healthy sized bullet. Holland struck out the next batter to end the threat and the inning.
Two innings later, Molina hit his go-ahead homer off Burnett and the Rangers never looked back. Holland retired the next three Yankees in order after the Rangers captured a 5-3 lead, and by the time the Yankees got back to the plate, Hamilton smashed his first homerun in the top of the seventh and Ian Kinsler had singled home Vlad Guerrero giving the Rangers a 7-3 lead, which ideally should have been enough.
Not with the Yankees though. Despite an empty seventh inning, New York threatened the four-run lead in the eighth inning as Texas used three different relievers in place of Holland but only got three walks to load the bases with one out yet again. Enter Darren Oliver. The only member of the Rangers on the franchise's first playoff team in 1996 came into the biggest pressure situation of the series so far with the dangerous Nick Swisher at the plate. One wrong pitch and the game is tied, 7-7. Instead Oliver got Swisher to pop out to shallow center field, preventing Granderson from tagging up, and one batter later, Berkman's hot shot to third was snagged by Young who thew to second base to end the eighth and the last threat the Yankees made.
Hamilton led off the ninth with a solo blast and Nellie Cruz went deep for a two-run shot to bring Texas to an even 10 runs, giving them a 3-1 lead in the ALCS. I keep tying it, but it still doesn't sound real.
The Rangers have one game to go until everyone in the metroplex is "antler'd up" watching Texas claw their way to the franchise's longest playoff run.
Watching Nolan Ryan beaming with joy as Texas pulled away from New York in the ninth inning, perhaps he and the Rangers knew something we all didn't when they came up with this year's marketing slogan.