“This is what we got him for,” the big fella mused Tuesday night, minutes after his Texas Rangers had ridden Cliff Lee(notes) for nine hard innings and put him away wet. “We felt what we knew and saw of Cliff Lee, he was going to be our go-to guy. … It gave us that lead horse.”

He’s drug ‘em this far, might as well keep goin’, too.

For their work over five games against the Tampa Bay Rays, the Rangers get the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series beginning Friday in Arlington.

If he continues on regular rest, Lee would start Game 3 at Yankee Stadium. As Philadelphia’s filly, he beat the Yankees twice in the last World Series.

He’s started seven postseason games, won six and lost none. That’s a growing pedigree that includes two wins in this division series, where in 16 innings he struck out 21 Rays and walked none.

“He’s exceptional,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s different and he got us.”

Soon he’ll be a free agent, the kind the Yankees like. Yes, Lee is going to New York, but for only a few days, and maybe a couple months earlier than the Yankees might have hoped, and wearing a gray uniform and not pinstripes. In one of the astonishing events of mid-summer, a time when the abiding currency is available talent, the bankrupt Rangers outbid the establishment Yankees for Lee. Now the Yankees hold their breaths and consider handing the ball to A.J. Burnett(notes) instead, while Ryan and the Rangers entertain thoughts of matching their own pitching staff with the Yankees’ for perhaps the first time in their history, and certainly for the first time it’s counted for anything.

This winter, when the game turns in favor of Steinbrenner Inc., the rules change. The Rangers are still sorting through the consequences of their ownership change and a new television contract and what those might mean on the payroll side, so can’t say for certain they’ll be serious players for Lee. These are the realities of the game, as evidenced in the Rays’ clubhouse, where Rays owner Stu Sternberg offered a hand to outfielder Carl Crawford(notes), who’ll be a free-agent headliner soon.

“Thanks for everything,” Sternberg told Crawford.

“All right, big man,” Crawford said. “Thank you for everything.”

It sounded like goodbye. It probably was.

“I didn’t want that to be my last at-bat,” Crawford said of an eighth-inning fly ball to center field. “Unfortunately, it might be.”

One day, and maybe soon, Ryan will hold the same conversation with Lee, the likes of which don’t come around often, and do come expensive.

Cliff Lee beat the Yankees twice in last year's World Series while starting for the Phillies.

(J. Meric/Getty Images)
Between now and then, however, there’s an ALCS to be played, so winter will wait. They’ll give the ball to Lee as often as they can, ride him as deep into fall as they can, and live with the best baseball season the Rangers have ever seen.

Days before they’d won this thing, Ryan had observed that someone was going to have to “step up” if the Rangers were going to beat the Rays. He was thinking along the lines of Josh Hamilton(notes) (.111 in the series), or Vladimir Guerrero(notes) (.263), or Michael Young(notes) (.150).

“Lee stepped up,” Ryan said. “He took it and did the rest.”

In a chaotic hallway, Ryan wore the only dry clothes. Where every man, woman and child is a target for some spray or another, Ryan wasn’t. He held a paper cup and sipped between thoughts. He smiled easily, so pleased at what they’d all done. He’d sat like tens of thousands of others at The Trop and marveled at what Lee had done, how he’d controlled the strike zone, turned pitches left and right, and changed the course of a franchise.

Lee spoke more of the particulars, and he lauded an offense that put runs between himself and the Rays.

“Just staying out of the heart of the plate,” he said, “mixing speeds, just pitching, just working ahead.”

Just that.

Now come the Yankees, a better offensive team than the Rays, and in a place where they count World Series by the dozens.

C.J. Wilson(notes), who is likely to start Game 1, said he didn’t believe any of that would bother Lee, not the lineup or the place. It hasn’t before.

“His personality,” Wilson said, “allows him to repel any sort of circumstances.”

That and his sinker, his cutter, the curveball that fell out of the sky Tuesday night. Anyway, if it’s gotta be the Yankees, then it’s the Yankees.

“We played the Yankees well,” Ryan said. “And I think that we can meet the Yankees head on and compete with them. Normally in this league you pretty much have to go through New York if you’re gonna go somewhere past there. I think our guys anticipated that and they’re ready for it.”

Well, then, saddle up, boys.
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