When the Rangers carried a 6-1 lead into the sixth inning, the storyline was practically written. After failing in their attempt to obtain him via a trade, the Yankees offense was shut down by Cliff Lee in a preview of the fate that awaited them come October. Unfortunately for the beat writers and bloggers covering the game, however, the Yankees didn’t stick to the script.
After Derek Jeter singled on the first pitch of the game, Lee bounced back to retire the next nine batters in a row. The early display of dominance was made even more ominous when Michael Young clanked the shortest homerun in Rangers Ballpark history off the right field foul pole to stake Lee to an early 1-0 lead. An RBI double by Alex Rodriguez in the fourth inning served as a temporary reprieve, but Javier Vazquez could not hold up his end of the pitchers’ duel in the middle innings. The Rangers rallied for two runs in the fourth and three in the fifth before Vazquez made the slow walk from the mound toward certain defeat.
Derek Jeter’s lead-off triple in the sixth seemed more cosmetic than prophetic at the time, but when the Captain scored on a wild pitch the comeback had begun. The Yankees continued to chip away at Lee in the seventh when Lance Berkman’s ground rule double knocked home a run ahead of an RBI single by Gardner that knocked Lee from the game. Despite handling the Yankee lineup with relative ease entering the inning, including 11 strikeouts along the way, Lee was forced to work hard in the 99 degree Texas heat, and that effort seemed to finally catch up with him.
Things didn’t get easier with Lee out of the game as Rangers’ manager Ron Washington played the matchups and called upon Darren O’Day and Darren Oliver to strike out Jeter and Swisher, respectively, and keep the Yankees deficit at 6-4.
The Rangers bullpen has been a strength all season, but in this series, Frank Francisco proved to be the weak link. One night after Arod reached the hard throwing righty for a home run, Marcus Thames greeted Francisco with a titanic blast deep into the left seats. The Yankees’ power display seemed to scare Francisco out of the strike zone has he walked two of the next three hitters, but the rally was thwarted when Austin Kearns grounded a 3-1 pitch into a double play.
For the second night in a row, it seemed as if the Yankees’ failure to take advantage of Francisco’s ineffectiveness would result in a loss at the hands of Neftali Feliz, but this time the Yankees broke through against the Rangers’ rookie closer. The inning started with a leadoff walk by Lance Berkman, for whom Curtis Granderson pinch ran, that was followed by a Gardner single on a flare to left. With runners on first and second, Jeter appeared to be bunting, but a wild pitch advanced the runners for him. After striking out in the same situation two innings earlier, Jeter seemed determined to put the bat on the ball and accomplished his goal by bouncing a weak groundball over Feliz’ head and through the drawn-in infield. Washington then removed his young closer, who had thrown 21 pitches the night before, from the game in favor of Alexi Ogando, who entered the game with an ERA just above 1.00. Ogando made quick work of Swisher, but Thames singled through the shortstop hole to plate the go ahead run.
Each August, Mariano Rivera seems to have a short stretch of games when a combination of bad location and bad luck conspire against him. So, when Elvis Andrus led off the ninth inning with a triple, it seemed like now was that time. On the next pitch, Young lined a ball that seemed ticketed to right field, but Kearns made a running shoe string grab that held the runner at third and seemed to give Mariano new life. After falling behind 2-0 to Josh Hamilton, Rivera sawed off the bat of the AL batting leader and induced a weak comebacker. Then, Rivera completed the escape by getting Vladimir Guerrero to ground out to third. Six pitches after facing certain disaster, the Yankees were on the mound celebrating one of their best and most improbable victories of the season.
The Rangers came into this brief two game series wanting to make a statement, and despite letting last night’s game slip away, the message was delivered loud and clear. Texas has established itself as a legitimate World Series contender and, unlike the late-1990s, will not be a push over come October. The Yankees also made a statement, however. Even in games when they don’t play particularly well, the defending world champs never give up. It remains to be seen whether these two teams will meet in the post season, but if this series was an indication, the final storyline has yet to be written.