Mad dash by Cruz hurtles Rangers forward

NEW YORK – What appeared to be 90 feet, teased from the fabric of New York Yankees resolve, with each tug brought more yards of grace.

Nelson Cruz(notes) stole those 90 feet, chanced every inch of them against the arm of Curtis Granderson(notes), against a game that was leaning against them and against a history that pleaded against recklessness.

The baseball carried into center field and, as Michael Young(notes) recalled it, “Twenty guys yelled, ‘Tag up!’ ”

Nelson Cruz's head's-up play helped the Rangers open up the offense against the struggling Yankees.
(Getty Images)

So Cruz returned to first base, dismissed the consequences of failure, and raced that ball to second base.

“You gotta go, you know?” Cruz said. “You got a situation, it was deep enough to take the chance.”

The Texas Rangers have played themselves to the edge of the World Series for a hundred little reasons, and a couple very large ones. On a Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, on the occasion of Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, they again took the critical 90 feet, the most important of the series so far.

Standing near the lip of the warning track in center field, Granderson watched that ball carry from his hand. Robinson Cano(notes) waited at second base. It was the sixth inning. The Yankees led by a run. Granderson’s catch made the second out. His throw sought the third.

“He was behind the ball the whole time,” Cruz said. “I just ran. I saw the throw and then kept my head down.”

The Yankees were going to survive A.J. Burnett’s(notes) start. He was going to leave with a lead. Manager Joe Girardi had lined up his bullpen. They’d all get through the sixth, then work toward Mariano Rivera(notes), tie the series at two games each.

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First, they’d need to throw out Cruz.

“I thought it was going to be close,” he said. “So, I went to the left side with my slide.”

He went head first, clutched the bag when he arrived, held as tight as he could.

“From that point,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said, “the offense opened up.”

Cruz had made it. All the talk during the season about taking more than the game should reasonably allow, about making the aggressive and savvy play, that was what clung to his uniform. Those 90 feet had caked on his belt buckle, poured down his shirt and dusted his neck a sandy brown.

In the first base dugout, Girardi stared at his binder. With two out and first base free, it told him to stick with Burnett, to intentionally walk the left-handed hitter – David Murphy(notes) – and to pitch to Bengie Molina(notes). There was another out to get.

A hitter of some threat (he’d led the Rangers in second-half RBIs), Murphy would be intentionally walked four times this season through Tuesday night. Girardi ordered three of them, each time in order to pitch to Molina. The first time, his pitcher walked Molina, eventually leading to two runs. In Game 3, not 24 hours earlier, Molina had followed with a run-scoring single.

Lastly, with Cruz having forced the walk and standing at second, and with Murphy at first base, Burnett would throw a single pitch to Molina. It was a fastball and it landed in the left-field bleachers.

That 90-foot thread, it had become a tangled mound at Girardi’s feet, three runs at a time when the season, too, was unraveling.

“Unfortunately,” Girardi said, “it didn’t work out. … We liked the matchup.”

It began a gruesome 3 1/3 innings for the Yankees manager, in which 10 outs cost him eight runs, and maybe a shot at his second consecutive World Series. Right-hander Dave Robertson got the first two outs of the seventh inning, then Girardi called for Boone Logan(notes) against Josh Hamilton(notes). Logan’s first pitch went to the backstop, his second landed in the right-field seats. Girardi returned to the mound, replaced Logan with Joba Chamberlain(notes), and three more Rangers reached base. One scored. He started the ninth with a four-run deficit, gave the ball to Sergio Mitre(notes), and watched three more runs score, one on Hamilton’s leadoff homer, two on a Cruz home run. The Rangers led, 10-3.

Every moment of the game found Girardi. He was booed on his trips to and from the mound. For the second consecutive night, the stadium was near empty by the final out, the game having been decided long before then.

He’d go to the binder, stare at it, then cover his eyes when it all blew up.

Murphy grinned at the play that set it up, at the same decision that had failed twice before, at the outcome.

“I guess he’s trying to do the logical thing,” Murphy said. “Bengie’s obviously a clutch hitter. The stats don’t really tell the story in his situation.”

Funny, it’s the kind of thing Washington had been telling his players for months, years even. He’d told them in spring training to go take those games, to impose their will on whatever was out there. Weeks into the season, he had to call it off, when the decisions were unsound and the outs silly. Slowly, he cut them loose again.

That’s why Cruz went. In the most important game in franchise history, he put his head down and brought his will.

“That’s just the way we ran the bases all year,” said the Rangers new owner, Chuck Greenberg, who watched the play unfold from his seat near home plate. “There were times people said it was reckless, but it was about young players learning how to take chances, learning how to push the envelope.”

Those 90 feet put them in the game again. And brought Girardi into the game. They forced another pitch, that being the fastball Molina turned on so viciously. And they turned the series.

The ball was late, the stadium gasped, the umpire flapped his arms. Cruz was safe, and so were the Rangers. Cruz stood and brushed those 90 feet from his uniform.

Later, when the Rangers were one win from the World Series, and his legs were wrapped against the effects of a four-hour game, he shrugged and said, “That’s how we play.”

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Oct 20, 2010