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ALCS a new challenge without Lee for Game 1

ALCS a new challenge without Lee for Game 1

ST. PETERSBURG -- One thing is clear as the Rangers embark on the first American League Championship Series in their history. If they are to dethrone the Yankees, the effort can't start and end with Cliff Lee, the left-hander who was front and center as Texas defeated the Rays in a five-game Division Series.

The Yankees can thank the Rays for their valiant comeback effort, winning Games 3 and 4 in Texas and forcing a Game 5. Because Lee had to pitch Game 5 for the Rangers on Tuesday, he won't be able to start again until Game 3 of the ACLS at Yankee Stadium on Monday night.

If Texas had been able to eliminate the Rays in Game 3 or 4 of the Division Series, Lee -- who finished off the Rays with a complete-game gem -- could have opened the ALCS.

On the flip side, the Yankees have ace CC Sabathia rested and ready for Game 1. As Sabathia showed last October, he can also carry a team this time of year.

The Rangers will count on C.J. Wilson in Game 1 and likely Colby Lewis in Game 2 in their quest to maintain their home-field advantage against the defending World Series champions. Wilson was magnificent in Game 2 of the Division Series.

"Obviously when you go to the playoffs, the focus level goes up tremendously. And him being as good as he is already, for him to take it to the next level, it was fun to watch," said Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton. "Hopefully our guys on the staff feed off him and feed off that focus and help him out."

By what Hamilton was hearing in a celebratory clubhouse on Tuesday night, he thinks Lee's rotation mates might be primed for such a challenge.

"C.J. is already talking about his start," Hamilton said. "That's good to see and good to hear. When you talk about the focus level Cliff Lee brings to the game, it makes the other starters around him better. I'm confident in those guys. We're playing in Arlington to start it off. That's a big bonus."

Of course, there is one other bonus the way the Rangers' rotation lines up. Should the ALCS go the distance, Lee would be lined up to pitch Game 7 on regular rest.

"There's nobody I'd rather have out there," Hamilton said.

The Yankees know this all too well. They lost to Lee -- then a member of the Phillies -- twice in last year's World Series.

If the Division Series was any indication, Lee is fully capable of having another October of brilliance.

But in a best-of-seven series when the most he will start is twice, other Rangers are going to have to step up.

Count Rays manager Joe Maddon as one observer who thinks this Texas team just might have what it takes to go toe to toe with the Yankees.

"I think it's going to be a great series actually, and I'll tell you why," Maddon said. "I think Texas is very similar to us in a lot of respects. I think they're a little bit more offensive, though. That's pretty obvious. They play good defense, run the bases well, good starting pitching, and they have a very nice bullpen that you can match up with, because they have all the lefties. You have to have some lefties out there to match up with the Yankees. You have to have a couple reverse guys. If you have that, that helps, also."

As much as Maddon wishes his team was moving on, he has a lot of respect for the team that will play New York.

"Texas has played them well all season," Maddon said. "I happened to catch some of the last outings in Texas on television, and I think it's going to be very entertaining, very interesting, and again I'm saying that because Texas does remind me of us in many ways."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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