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ARLINGTON, Texas -- The most important thing in the American League Championship Series for the New York Yankees is to break serve in Texas before Cliff Lee pitches -- but it is not the only important thing.
To get a better idea of how the Yankees can win this series, ESPNNewYork.com talked with a scout, with future Hall of Famer and current TBS announcer John Smoltz and with players from both teams.
What we found out is that the Rangers are not a two-man gang (Lee and Josh Hamilton). They are a complete team.
"They can homer you to death or they can one-run you to death," the scout said.
So let's look at a grand slam of issues that could decide this series:
|Mariano Rivera is a huge edge for the Yankees in any playoff series.|
1. Can the Rangers get to Mariano Rivera?
The Rangers got to him twice during the regular season. On Aug. 10, David Murphy knocked a game-winning soft liner off Rivera. On Sept. 11, Ian Kinsler tied the game in the ninth and Jeff Francoeur was hit by a pitch to beat Rivera.
"All it does is it gives them some confidence against a guy who nobody has confidence against," Smoltz said. "We talk about the regular season because we have to, but it has no real bearing on the postseason because it is a whole new atmosphere. If guys could stay relaxed, it might say something, but Mariano Rivera is the most relaxed person in the history of the game when it comes to this time of year. I don't know if many hitters are that way."
Rivera isn't the same Rivera he was in August or early September. He looked as if he were back to his old form during the ALDS.
"He was pinpoint nasty," Smoltz said.
Still, the Rangers do have some confidence, which is more than most teams have when they face Rivera.
"I think so," Murphy said when asked if the regular season could carry over into the postseason. "He could be a completely different pitcher. We have had success against him. Everybody in baseball respects him. He is the greatest closer. We know we have to bring our A-game to beat him."
2. Can the Rangers protect their home?
The Rangers' biggest plus in this series -- besides Lee -- is that they have home-field advantage. At Rangers Ballpark, the ball carries to right.
The flags atop the Ballpark are deceptive. If they are blowing in, it means the ball is actually flying out to right.
"We get to sit out there and we get to see the ball take off," ex-Met Darren O'Day said of his view from the Rangers' bullpen.
O'Day said the Ballpark plays similar to Yankee Stadium, comparing right field in Arlington to the short porch in right in the Bronx. Michael Young and his good buddy, A-Rod, are two guys who like to go the other way.
"It is a great hitters' park -- except for left-center everything else is accessible," Yankees DH Lance Berkman said.
So the park could be a factor. The Rangers were one of the best teams in baseball at home this season. This area is pumped up about the possibility of the Rangers making their first World Series appearance.
If they can win Game 1, there will be huge pressure on Phil Hughes in Game 2, with Lee waiting in the wings to pitch Game 3 in the Bronx.
3. Will the Rangers be a runaway train?
The Rangers may try to be very aggressive on the base paths against Jorge Posada. Posada has had trouble throwing guys out all season. Leadoff man Elvis Andrus had three steals in the ALDS, and 32 during the regular season. If he gets on base, he can cause trouble.
|Nelson Cruz could have had even bigger numbers this season if he hadn't struggled with injuries.|
The Rangers are generally very active on the base paths. According to stats expert Bill James, they were the third-best team in baseball at taking an extra base this season. While their home run total was way down, they added a dimension to their offense as they made the most productive outs in baseball.
4. Beware of Nelson Cruz.
Universally, when we asked all who were polled, "Who is the guy that people might not think of to be wary of in this Rangers lineup?" the answer was Cruz.
"Nelson Cruz is an outstanding hitter, but he doesn't get a lot of media attention," Berkman said. "Nellie gets a lot of big hits."
Three Rangers players agreed, as did the scout. In 109 games this season, Cruz hit .318 with 22 homers and 79 RBIs. Half of his home runs came in late-and-close situations.
Andrew Marchand covers baseball for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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