ARLINGTON, Texas -- If the Texas Rangers were going to summarize their American League Championship Series debut with a single sentiment, it might go something like this:
"We kicked the Yankees' butts for seven innings, and all we got was this lousy claw-and-antlers T-shirt."
Rangers Ballpark in Arlington was a cauldron of pent-up enthusiasm Friday night. The 50,930 fans in attendance were so wired, they booed New York's equipment manager and assistant trainer during pregame introductions. Then club president and co-owner Nolan Ryan set the tone for the festivities when he threw the ceremonial opening pitch so hard, the velocity was clocked by FanGraphs.
Talk about laying a trap for the vaunted Yankees: When Rangers slugger Josh Hamilton stroked a three-run homer in the first inning, it was like a gift to his teammates in return for that feel-good ginger ale shower they gave him in celebration of their AL Division Series win over the Tampa Bay Rays. Texas starter C.J. Wilson was so impressive in maintaining a 5-1 lead through seven innings, it suddenly seemed like a good thing that staff ace Cliff Lee wasn't available for the series opener.
But as six or eight or 10 Yankees and Rangers were quick to point out late Friday night, the team in the lead still has to record 27 outs to seal the deal. In the ALCS opener, that was a few too many for the Rangers.
It happened in a blur. New York sent 10 men to the plate against Wilson and four relievers in the eighth inning, and before it was through, the Yankees had sapped the life from this place. Kerry Wood and Mariano Rivera maintained the status quo in the eighth and ninth, and the Yankees took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series with a 6-5 victory.
"I don't know if we gave it away," said Texas manager Ron Washington. "We just didn't execute. It certainly was our ballgame, especially when you just need six outs. We didn't get them."
After the game, players from both teams took a naturally centrist position on the carryover effect of the Yankees' comeback. The Rangers lost two home games in the opening round against Tampa Bay and had to scramble to clinch the series on the road. So they're naturally anxious to play the "resilient" card in anticipation of Game 2 on Saturday afternoon.
"It's not devastating at all," said Texas third baseman Michael Young. "We lost Game 1 and we'll come back and play Game 2. We wash stuff away pretty well with this team."
But if recent playoff history means anything, the Rangers have a pretty good idea how the Twins must feel. Minnesota led the first game of the AL Division Series 3-0 before New York rallied for a win against starter Francisco Liriano and the Twins' bullpen. A few days later, the Twins were cleaning out their lockers and manager Ron Gardenhire was being torched on the blogosphere for his 6-18 career postseason record.
That's the kind of psychic damage the Yankees can inflict when the outs grow shorter and each at-bat assumes a greater sense of urgency. New York led the major leagues with 48 comeback wins this season, including seven games in which the Yankees trailed by at least three runs. On some nights there's a general sense in the dugout that it's not going to happen, but the Yankees have conditioned themselves not to surrender to the temptation that any game is a lost cause.
"There are games when it feels that way," said New York outfielder Brett Gardner, "but you can't allow yourself to get caught in that rut, because that's when you fail. And in baseball you fail 70 percent of the time at the plate, anyway, so you want to be as positive as possible.
"We never panic. When a situation like this comes up, it's the most important game of the year. But we've done it before, so we're used to it."
Gardner got the party started for New York in the eighth inning with a headfirst slide into the first-base bag for an infield single. In return for his hustle, he received a couple of spike marks in his left hand courtesy of Wilson's cleat. The conventional wisdom in baseball circles is that headfirst slides into first base do a runner absolutely no good, but Gardner wasn't buying it.
"Whoever says that probably isn't playing," Gardner said. "If I would have gone in standing up, I would have been out."
In hindsight, it was a night for so many what-ifs and pivotal plays that could have gone either way. Yankees starter CC Sabathia was struggling mightily in the first inning when he threw a wild pitch to the backstop, then raced to the plate and slapped a tag on Nelson Cruz for the final out. Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler, the potential tying run, got picked off by Wood on a stolen-base attempt in the eighth. And during the Yankees' big rally, Alex Rodriguez hit a shot to third base that ate up Young. For a fleeting moment it appeared that Young might have a play. But he didn't see it that way.
"I would have loved to have made it," Young said, "but he hit it hard and it took a tricky hop at the end. I would have loved for [the ball] to have found my glove. But I'm not going to lose any sleep over that play, that's for sure."
On a lot of nights, the Yankees win by grinding out torturous eight- or 10-pitch at-bats against overmatched relievers. On this night, A-Rod and Robinson Cano both delivered huge hits while swinging at the first pitch. And Marcus Thames, who broke three bats on the evening, cracked his weapon of choice on the RBI single that gave New York a 6-5 lead.
"My bat died a hero," Thames said, "but I'll take that any day."
If the Rangers come back to win this series, it will be a testament to their fortitude and ability to weather setbacks. If the Yankees win and go on to face the Phillies or Giants in the World Series, the analysts who picked against them in the playoffs will look back at their 29-30 record in August and September as one big tease.
The only sure thing at the moment is that the Yankees make better use of the 27 outs at their disposal than any team in baseball. Just ask the Twins, and now the Rangers, who had reason to believe they had things under control until the Yankees kept cranking out hits and crossing home plate. All of a sudden, it was the bottom of the ninth, and the Texas players looked up and saw John Belushi's inspirational frat-house speech from "Animal House" exhorting them to come back.
Another disheartening loss like this one, and the Rangers might want to call the Angels and see if they can rent the Rally Monkey.