Lee's role ranks as series Cliff-hanger

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Texas Rangers' best chance of making it to the first World Series in their history lies in forcing the American League Championship Series to its limit and subjecting the Yankees to their worst nightmare, a showdown with Texas' ace, Cliff Lee.

And the Yankees' best chance of getting back to the World Series for the 41st time in their history depends strongly on making sure the ALCS goes no further than Game 6.

That is the story of this ALCS in a nutshell. The Rangers need to get to Cliff Lee and the Yankees need to stay away from him, much like a very talented Mets team of a quarter-century ago needed to avoid Mike Scott like the swine flu.

It is also the story of a trade that almost was, because if ever a week of baseball will pass final judgment on a midseason decision, it is the one that begins Friday night at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

You will recall that in early July, the Yankees had all but begun fitting Lee for pinstripes until the Rangers swooped in and sweetened their package to include Justin Smoak at the same time Yankees GM Brian Cashman was balking at including either Ivan Nova or Eduardo Nunez with top prospect Jesus Montero.

It seemed a prudent decision at the time -- why give away that much young talent for a three-month rental? -- and if the Yankees get past Texas, go on to win the World Series again and wind up signing Lee anyway as a free agent in the offseason, Cashman will have laid claim to the Executive of the Decade Award, if such a thing existed.

But what if the worst happens? What if the Yankees find themselves deadlocked with the powerful and unpredictable Rangers and have to return here for a Game 7 on Oct. 23?

The outcome of that game will determine not only the success of the Yankees' season but also the wisdom of their front office.

"There was no question our team was very excited," Alex Rodriguez said, recalling that heady July afternoon when it was widely reported Lee would be a Yankee by the end of the week. "We were hearing there was a chance he was coming our way."

And when it didn't happen? "The first thing that went through my mind was, 'These guys will be knocking on the door of the World Series,'" A-Rod said. "And here they are."

Indeed. And so is Lee, by far the biggest factor in this series, his presence looming larger than A-Rod's or Derek Jeter's or Josh Hamilton's or Mariano Rivera's.

He is that rare performer who, like the Yanks' CC Sabathia, practically guarantees a quality performance every time out, and that rare pitcher who neutralizes the Yankees' best quality as hitters, their patience and willingness to take pitch after pitch, work at-bat after at-bat, until they get the pitch they want and wear a pitcher out in the process.

Lee thrives on that approach because, as manager Joe Girardi said on Thursday, "You can be patient with Cliff Lee and all of a sudden you're 0-2."

At that point, the at-bat is no longer yours, it's his. Now, the hitter is no longer looking for his pitch, he's looking at Lee's.

That's what makes it imperative that Sabathia win the opener Friday night against C.J. Wilson, no slouch himself, and Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte win their Games 2 and 3 starts, because Game 4 raises a specter of its own, that of A.J. Burnett.

If the teams split the first four games, it becomes a three-game series and the Yankees have to win two of them. Preferably the first two, to avoid the possibility that Lee will shut them down for the fourth time in his past five appearances against them and bring their World Series quest to a crashing halt.

"Any time you're in a series you want to avoid Game 7 because anything can happen," Rodriguez said. "But it's hard to talk about Game 7 when we haven't even played Game 1 yet."

There are other concerns aside from Lee, of course. Wilson has never beaten the Yankees although he pitched well against them twice this season, did develop into a 15-game winner this year and has stifled some of the Yankees' most potent bats, including A-Rod's. He is 1-for-13 lifetime against Wilson.

And the Rangers' offense, once a one-dimensional, all-or-nothing crew that lived and died by the long ball, still has Hamilton, whose season was the MVP equivalent of Robbie Cano's, but has added the dimensions of speed and unpredictability. The Rangers literally ran the Tampa Bay Rays, generally considered 1A to the Yankees 1 in the rankings for best team in baseball, right out of Game 5 of the ALDS to get here.

"They can bunt, they can steal, they're very aggressive and they're very unorthodox," Rodriguez said. "They steal third with two outs, they swing on 3-0, they bunt with the bases loaded, they do the unexpected. We got our hands full with these guys."

But all those things, the Yankees can handle. Lee? Maybe not.

"He's one of the best I've ever faced," said Nick Swisher, who has hit a decent .320 (8-for-25) in his career against Lee with two home runs. Jeter (.417, 15-for-36) has also done well with him, as has Lance Berkman (.375), who probably won't get to play against a left-handed pitcher in Girardi's DH platoon.

But while the individual numbers against Lee have been good, the team results lately have been poor. "I'm just glad I don't have to hit against him," said Sabathia, who because of scheduling will not have to pitch against him either.

But once again, the Yankees will need Sabathia to be what he has been all season, an ace, even if his performance against the Twins was not particularly good -- he allowed four runs in six innings and put his team into an early 3-0 hole -- and may have shown signs that his heavy workload this year may finally be getting to him.

But assuming wins for CC in Games 1 and 5, and at least one win from Hughes and/or Pettitte in Games 2 and 3, the Yankees will need one more win to avoid the matchup that as competitors they profess to want, and as world championship aspirants they should want no part of.

If this ALCS comes down a Game 7, then the Yankees have let it go one game too far.

And the Rangers will have brought it to right where they need it to be.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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