ARLINGTON, Texas – He kept taking the walk of shame. Ron Washington wore a path between the dugout and the pitchers' mound at Rangers Ballpark in the eighth inning Friday night, each time strolling a little slower, each time coming to terms with his team blowing the American League Championship Series.
While Game 1 of any LCS does not a series make, the Texas Rangers managed in one brutal half-inning to change the course of their showdown with the New York Yankees. Five pitchers and six runs later, their lead was erased, their momentum neutered, their hope for vanquishing the Yankees on life support. Square in Texas' crosshairs, the kill shot a fait accompli, one man missed, then a second and a third and a fourth, and by the time the fifth came around, the Yankees had done the unthinkable: taken back the weapon and turned it on the Rangers.
"We had it all wrapped up," said Darren O'Day(notes), culprit No. 3, and he's right. They were six outs from a one-game advantage, momentum and positive vibes going into Saturday afternoon. And what instead they face – a one-game deficit, all the energy of a mule and sketchy vibes following a 6-5 loss – turns the Rangers into a team that now can't afford to lose Game 2, not when the three following games return to the bubbling Yankee Stadium cauldron.
All of this hadn't quite hit the Rangers yet when they milled around their clubhouse after the loss. Shell-shock takes more than half an hour to register. And this was baseball's version of an IED, the Yankees going single, double, walk, walk, single, single, single. Washington practically emptied his bullpen, letting starter C.J. Wilson(notes) leave after the first two batters, watching Darren Oliver(notes) walk the next two, cringing at O'Day giving up a hit on an 86-mph fastball, gagging when Clay Rapada(notes) allowed another hit on another 86-mph fastball and preparing a cyanide cocktail upon Derek Holland(notes) yielding the final hit that frittered away the five-run lead.
The Rangers felt good. They felt so good. Thirty-nine years they've been in Texas without winning a single playoff game at home, and here they were, Wilson shutting out the Yankees for six innings, Josh Hamilton(notes) cracking a home run in the first inning, CC Sabathia(notes) getting chased after four mediocre innings. They had Cliff Lee(notes) pitching for them twice and A.J. Burnett(notes) pitching for the Yankees once, and right there were three more victories.
Yeah, and other than that little fire, the Hindenburg was quite the rousing flight.
The Rangers crashed. They crashed big. They tried to reason and rationalize – "It's not devastating at all," swore Michael Young(notes), who let the Derek Jeter(notes) RBI double and two-run Alex Rodriguez(notes) single slip by him – and it all ended up looking like denial.
Because that's the only way to forget something in 15 hours. Game 2 starts at 3 p.m. local time on Saturday, and losses like this cause the worst sort of hangover, the two-day brain-benders that feel like a cherry bomb went off in the head. Coughing up a five-run lead with six outs to go demands amnesia, and pretending it never happened is the Rangers' best bet.
"I don't know if we gave it away," Washington said. "We just didn't execute."
If that's the tack Washington wants to take, so be it. Truth is, they did give it away. Wilson, on long rest, was at 104 pitches and losing no juice on his pitches. Speedy Brett Gardner(notes) legged out an infield single. Jeter turned on a pitch and hit it past a subpar third baseman. The next three hitters – Nick Swisher(notes), Mark Teixeira(notes) and A-Rod – were 0-for-8 with three strikeouts and two pop-ups against him.
Why Washington took that first walk is questionable, particularly after the Rangers' bullpen showed its meltdown capabilities in Game 3 of the division series. Still, he summoned Oliver for two hitters, then O'Day and Rapada for one pitch apiece before settling on Holland. None did his job. All the while, Neftali Feliz(notes), the Rangers' closer and best relief pitcher, never moved off his seat in the bullpen.
"Today was an aberration," O'Day said. "We know we're better than that. We'll be better than that the rest of the series."
Exactly how long this series goes is now in serious question. The Rangers came into the ALCS hoping to split the home games, outfielder Jeff Francoeur(notes) said, and while that seems like defeatism, it's a fair hope. Sabathia wasn't supposed to be a command-free mess. The Rangers, if anything, were supposed to lose this.
Doing so in such gut-punching, wind-knocking fashion, however, electrocutes the psyche of lesser teams, and that's what Game 2 now turns into: as much a referendum on the Rangers' toughness as their talent.
"If you've taken that many steps, why would you ever let one misstep derail you?" Wilson said. "That's just not how we roll."
Lord, do the Rangers hope he's right. Forget Friday, they all said. Never happened. Kinsler and Young sat back in their chairs and chatted. A blow drier's wheeze emanated from the shower area. Guys got dressed, went to their cars.
And as all this was happening, life going on, outfielder David Murphy(notes) scratched his head. He was merely satisfying an itch, though it better symbolized the night for the Texas Rangers, down 1-0, clinging for life and wondering what the hell happened.
- Ron Washington