You might have better luck turning up artifacts from Atlantis than evidence that the Texas Rangers actually appeared in the 1998 postseason. They left behind just a single run-like some unearthed shard of pottery—as the only proof that they played the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series. Otherwise they were as lost as their manager, Johnny Oates, was two hours before the last of their three games. Oates was talking on the telephone in his window-less office last Friday when a power outage hit The Ballpark in Arlington. "The room went completely black," he said later. "It was so dark I couldn't hang up the phone. I couldn't find it."
The helpless feeling of sensory deprivation is as good a way as any to describe what it's like to play the Yankees, who rolled into the American League Championship Series this week against the Cleveland Indians having followed the winningest season in league history with one of the best-pitched postseason series ever.
Veteran starters David Wells, Andy Pettitte and David Cone, who've been through the wringer more than a George Steinbrenner turtleneck, accounted for all but 6⅓ innings of the three-game sweep in which more Texas fans dashed for home plate (two during a Biblical rain delay last Friday) than did Texas players.
"If they keep pitching the way they did against us, it'll be very difficult for anybody to beat them," says general manager Doug Melvin, whose Rangers were also excised from the 1996 playoffs by New York, which went on to win the world championship that year. "From now on I've got to find a way where we don't play the Yankees in the first round. At the general managers' meetings next month I think I'll suggest some changes to the playoff format."
After disposing of the woefully thin Boston Red Sox in four games in the other American League Division Series, the Indians faced the unnerving realization that no matter how Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove or New York skipper Joe Torre arrange their rotations, the Indians never will have a clear edge in any matchup of starting pitchers. Cleveland is more comfortable with games decided late, when Hargrove makes like a caffeinated Kasparov with his many bullpen moves. "You do win games this time of year with your bullpen," Indians general manager John Hart says. "We've showed it every year."
"I don't see it," Boston pitcher Bret Saberhagen said of Cleveland's chances of beating New York four times in the best-of-seven series. "The Indians have to pitch their ass off and play their ass off and even then.... They can't make a mistake. It can be done. Sometimes magic happens in the playoffs. But you have to hope the Yankees starters are not on top of their game like they are now. I mean, they gave up one run to the best hitting team in the American League—other than themselves, of course."
Cleveland is the only team still playing that doesn't have a true No. 1 starting pitcher. Their best starter down the stretch, righthander Dwight Gooden, hasn't made it to the eighth inning all year. Hargrove's choice to open the Division Series, righthander Jaret Wright, couldn't make it through five innings against the Red Sox. But righthanders Charles Nagy and Bartolo Colon put inconsistent seasons behind them to pitch back-to-back gems at Fenway Park. Nagy, pitching his first postseason game since losing Game 7 of the World Series last year, and Colon, 23, pitching his first postseason game, period, allowed one run each over a combined 13⅔ innings. "To have them put us on their backs and allow our offense time to get going—in a hostile environment—that was huge," Hart says.
Nagy won Game 3 (the final score was 4-3) with eight strong innings that confirmed the importance of a midseason change in his mechanics. At the suggestion of pitching coach Mark Wiley, Nagy now begins his delivery with a more pronounced left shoulder turn, which gives him better balance and lends better sink to his pitches. All but six of his 24 outs against Boston were strikeouts or grounders—a convincing retort to the Fenway fans who heckled him during warmups because of his 5.22 ERA. "Guys were getting all over me because they said I killed their Rotisserie teams," Nagy says.
"Chuck has always come through in the big games," says Cleveland reliever Paul Assenmacher. "Last year against Baltimore [in the Championship Series] he went toe-to-toe with Mike Mussina. We weren't worried about Chuck at all. But Bartolo—he'd never pitched in a big game."
At noon last Saturday, four hours before his start, Colon was in his Boston hotel room getting breathing lessons. The 15-minute session was part of his frequent performance-enhancement work with the Indians' brain coach, psychologist Charles Maher. Yet two batters into the game—after having given up a double and a walk-Colon seemed to have forgotten what followed "inhale." Then he blew a third-strike fastball past Mo Vaughn, retired Nomar Garciaparra and Mike Stanley on grounders and went on to make the Indians believe he can make the leap Wright made in his 3-0 postseason last year. "I think we'll look back and see that Bartolo came of age in this game," Hart says. For now, Colon still is young enough to think Home Alone, a movie he watches repeatedly, is funny.