Former President George W. Bush was at Game One of the American League Championship Series on Friday night. It might have been a bad idea for the Rangers to invite their former owner to hang up a "Mission Accomplished" banner with a 5-0 lead after the sixth inning.
We're kidding about the banner, of course, but Game One devolved just as quickly as the war in Iraq for the Rangers. One second they were cruising past a rusty Yankee team while striking some deep fear into their hearts because of the way the series set up the rest of the way; the next found them staring blankly out at the field as the Yankees grabbed a 6-5 eighth inning lead and, eventually, the first win of the series.
It would be wrong to say, as some will, that the Yankees offense wore down the Rangers pitchers. C.J. Wilson did tire a bit at the start of the eighth, but he left with a 5-2 lead and a runner on second base with no outs. What really happened was that the Yankee bats, which looked rust-encrusted all night long, finally woke up all at once. They got a big assist from Ron Washington, who managed the normally sound Rangers bullpen about as well as Brownie managed FEMA in the days after Hurricane Katrina.
Darren Oliver, who pitched in the 1996 ALDS between these teams, walked Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira to load the bases. Darren O'Day gave up a two-run single to Alex Rodriguez and Clay Rapada gave up a run-scoring single to Robinson Cano before Washington turned to Derek Holland to face Marcus Thames. Holland is a lefty and Thames kills lefties, and the go-ahead single was so obvious that even John Smoltz could have called it from the TBS booth.
It was vintage Yankee lightning, to be sure, but you can't discount Washington's role in the mess.
Washington never went to closer Neftali Feliz, presumably because he didn't want to have him try for a six-out save. That's all well and good in May, but Washington simply made it so that there was no save situation at all. It's the kind of bungling that managers never recover from, just ask Grady Little, and this is the kind of loss that even the most momentum-averse baseball watchers have to think will hang over the Rangers for the rest of this series.
Washington got some help in the bonehead move department from his second baseman. Kerry Wood walked Ian Kinsler on four pitches to start the bottom of the eighth and then threw two more balls to get behind David Murphy, but Kinsler inexplicably tried to steal and got picked off by Wood for a crucial out that allowed the Yankee reliever to settle himself and escape the inning.
That was the second time a Ranger baserunner bailed out a Yankee pitcher. All the way back in the first inning, when CC Sabathia was looking nothing like the guy who was the Yankee ace all season, Nelson Cruz broke for home on a wild pitch and got thrown out at the plate. That was the third out and Sabathia escaped a bases loaded situation after allowing a three-run homer to Josh Hamilton.
Sabathia needed all the help he could get on Friday. His command was nowhere to be found in the early going and he never really got on track before leaving after four innings and five runs. It's the second straight bad start for Sabathia and it felt like Phil Hughes was going to have a lot of weight on his shoulders come Saturday afternoon. A shaky Yankee ace and Cliff Lee looming in Game Three meant that it was going to be deemed a must-win and Hughes would have to deliver a gem in his second career playoff start.
That gem is still welcomed, of course, but this series feels totally different than it did when Sabathia left the game. Thank five scoreless innings from the Yankee bullpen -- start the Dustin Moseley should start Game Four bandwagon -- and one of the epic rallies in Yankee history for the change of feeling.
The feeling now? This is the Yankees' series to lose and that was unthinkable just a few hours ago.