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Yankees, Rangers renew '90s playoff rivalry

Yankees, Rangers renew '90s playoff rivalry

In the late 1990s, the New York Yankees, on their way to four World Series championships in five seasons, almost routinely paused to defeat the Texas Rangers in an American League Division Series.

The Yankees defeated the Rangers in Division Series in 1996, 1998 and 1999, winning nine of 10 games in the process. As this 2010 AL Championship Series begins, it is obvious that the Rangers are a completely different club now, although the Yankees are still getting significant contributions from players who experienced those earlier victories, the "Core Four" -- Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada.

One other difference is substantial and he's a left-handed starter for the Rangers -- Cliff Lee. Here is somebody who has proven that he can defeat the Yankees at the highest level of play. While winning the 2009 World Series, the Yankees lost two games to the Phillies. The winning pitcher in both games was Cliff Lee.

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Lee was bothered by a back issue in the second half of this season, but on Sept. 12, he pitched eight innings against the Yankees, winning again, allowing two hits in eight innings. His back was not an issue, and he underscored the notion that when attempting to defeat the Yankees, there is no substitute for having someone who actually has accomplished this feat. Lee will obviously not be available at the top of this rotation, because he pitched the final game of the Rangers' Division Series victory over Tampa Bay. But he could still start twice later if the series lasts long enough.

Elsewhere, the gap in postseason experience between these two clubs is immense. The Yankees are still the best offensive club in the game, too, leading the Majors in runs scored, and in on-base percentage. This is not only an imposing lineup, but a relentless lineup. The Yankees stage at-bats that are at once patient, selective and damaging, running up opposition pitch counts. It is a lineup filled with difficulty, front to back, and it can only be contained by a top-shelf pitcher working at the top of his game. But again, there is Cliff Lee.

Still the Yankees come to this postseason moment with questions attached. Last October -- and November -- they marched to their 27th World Series championship with a three-man rotation; CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte. A three-man rotation was in place for the Yankees' Division Series victory over the Twins, too, but Phil Hughes replaced Burnett. Now Burnett will be the fourth starter for the ALCS.

Sabathia is still Sabathia; reliable, tireless, reaching the 20-victory plateau and beyond for the first time in his career. But Burnett is having an inexplicable second half -- a 2.00 earned run average in July, then 7.80 in August and 6.14 in September. Pettitte, meanwhile, a completely proven postseason commodity, has had only three starts after coming back from a left groin injury, but came back into postseason form with a victory over the Twins. Hughes, in his first postseason start, pitched brilliantly, recording seven shutout innings.

Against the Yankees' staff, the Rangers have their own impressive offense, an attack that combines elements of genuine power and speed. Vladimir Guerrero has returned to his run-producing form at DH, second baseman Ian Kinsler is a repeat All-Star, third baseman Michael Young is one of the game's most consistent performers and outfielder Nelson Cruz is a supremely talented offensive player.

The big question surrounding the Rangers is Josh Hamilton, arguably the most talented player in the American League today. Out since early September with two small fractures in his right rib cage, Hamilton returned to the lineup for the last weekend of the regular season. Even with the lost time, Hamilton still might be the AL Most Valuable Player. He played in the Division Series, but did not provide his usual punch. If he can perform at anything resembling his usual level, he will provide the Rangers with a huge lift.

Overall, the Rangers' staff has nothing like the postseason experience of their Yankee counterparts. Their task here will be turning a world of potential into immediate postseason production. The work of closer Neftali Feliz, 22, having a truly superior season in his first full year in the Majors, could be pivotal.

The Rangers have responded to the leadership of manager Ron Washington. General manager Jon Daniels and his staff have done a terrific job of assembling a strong foundation of young talent. There is new ownership and the legendary Nolan Ryan, as club president, is still a one-of-a-kind focal point for the entire organization. This is a franchise headed in the right direction. The question here is whether it can find that direction immediately against the ultimate postseason test, the Yankees.

BREAKDOWN

HEAD TO HEAD

2010 Record:: Yankees 4-4 | Rangers 4-4
Batting average: Yankees .269 | Rangers .241
Home runs: Yankees 6 | Rangers 5
RBIs: Yankees 34 | Rangers 33
ERA: Yankees 4.20 | Rangers 4.63
Strikeouts: Yankees 51 | Rangers 77
Walks: Yankees 28 | Rangers 41

Key Late Game Matchups: Facing Mariano Rivera in the postseason would be a daunting task for most teams, but the Rangers believe they have reason to be relatively confident against Rivera. The only four Rangers with more than five at-bats against Rivera -- Michael Young, Ian Kinsler, Bengie Molina and Vladimir Guerrero -- are 17-for-48 (.354) combined against the Yankees' closer. On the other side, the Rangers' 22-year-old closer, Neftali Feliz, had a superb campaign. His great stuff against the middle of the Yankees' fabled lineup -- Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano -- with the outcome on the line, could be a postseason moment for the ages.

Secret Weapon
Yankees: With the proviso that nothing is particularly secret about the world's most publicized baseball team, it would be a break from form if the Yankees won with speed. And outfielder Brett Gardner, who has played his way into a prominent role with the Yankees, has that kind of speed.
Rangers: The Rangers may not be automatically associated with speed in the public mind, but they are fifth in the American League in stolen bases. The Rangers will try to diversify their offense by attempting to run on the Yankees' catchers and the Yankees' pitching staff.

Achilles' Heel
Yankees: If the problem is the fourth starter, is that a real problem in a seven-game series? After the winning performances in the Division Series, the rest of the rotation looks solid. A.J. Burnett was out of the rotation for that series, which may explain why the Yankees were unbeaten. And in the bullpen, the bridge to Mariano Rivera must be open for business, not under repair.
Rangers: They have the fourth highest rate of swinging at the first pitch and the fourth lowest percentage of pitches taken in the American League. Opposing pitchers can get the Rangers' offense in trouble by getting Texas hitters to chase pitches and putting them into pitcher's counts.

AND THE WINNER IS ...

The Yankees will win if ... The pitching, particularly the starting pitching, holds up. With their offense, the Yankees may require only competent pitching. They had more than that in the Division Series.

The Rangers will win if ... Cliff Lee is still a postseason Yankee-beater, and at least one more Texas starter rises to the postseason occasion.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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