ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — CC vs. C.J., an AL championship series-opening matchup with Cliff Lee connections.
While waiting until Game 3 for his chance to pitch against the New York Yankees, Lee will watch from the Texas dugout Friday night. CC Sabathia, his former and possibly future teammate, faces C.J. Wilson, the lefty reliever-turned-starter who has been constantly watching and talking with Lee in their short time together with the Rangers.
“When you’re a little kid and you’re in your backyard … pretending that you’re somebody or whatever, you put yourself in this position,” Wilson said. “You put yourself in Game 1, Game 7, championship series, World Series, stuff like that.”
Because Lee, the Rangers’ hired ace, had to pitch a deciding Game 5 in the division series against Tampa Bay, Wilson starts Game 1 against the Yankees. It is the first time the AL West champion Rangers have ever opened a postseason series at home.
When Lee becomes a free agent after the season, Texas and New York are likely to be on his short list: the Rangers because he’s already their ace; the Yankees because they likely will offer him the most money.
When Seattle was working to trade Lee this summer, it appeared he would be reunited with Sabathia, his teammate in Cleveland from 2003-08. They even spoke the day before Lee was acquired July 9 by the Rangers after an apparent deal with New York fell through.
“Me and Cliff have been friends for a long time,” Sabathia said. “We hit it off right off the bat, so it’s just been one of those relationships where we always keep in touch, always talk to each other.”
They faced each other in the World Series last year, when Lee won Game 1 for Philadelphia over Sabathia and the Yankees with 10 strikeouts in a complete game. Lee also won his other World Series start for the Phillies, but New York took the other four games and the series.
The Yankees can avoid facing Lee twice in this series if it ends in fewer than seven games. Lee is 6-1 in his last eight starts against the Yankees, postseason included. He is 4-0 with a 1.16 ERA and two complete games in his past four starts in New York, where Game 3 is Monday night.
For Game 1, Lee’s biggest impact will be his influence on Wilson.
“I’m not a guy that pushes a bunch of information on anybody, but he’s definitely a guy that knows how to pitch,” Lee said. “We’ve shared information, ideas on how to pitch guys, what to do with certain things.”
Wilson, a 15-game winner this season, already was making an impressive transition from reliever to starter before Lee arrived.
While Wilson’s record and ERA were virtually identical in 17 starts before and 16 after Lee arrived, his strikeouts increased, his walks decreased and, more importantly, he didn’t fade down the stretch as the innings piled up. He hadn’t thrown more than 73 2-3 innings in a season since 2002 in the minors when he was a starter.
“What Cliff has done for C.J. is make him understand if you have good stuff, throw it in the strike zone and good things will happen more often than not,” Texas manager Ron Washington said. “Recently, he’s starting to throw more pitches over the plate, he’s starting to trust himself more and he’s starting to get quicker outs than he has in the past.”
Wilson followed Lee’s spectacular Game 1 in the first round with a gem of his own, allowing two hits in 6 1-3 scoreless innings. But after winning those games at Tampa Bay, the Rangers lost both at home and had to go back to Florida for the deciding game with Lee back on the mound Tuesday night.
The Rangers still have never won a playoff game at Rangers Ballpark. After winning a postseason series for the first time ever, they get New York, which has won 27 World Series titles and 40 pennants.
The Yankees, who haven’t played since wrapping up a three-game sweep over Minnesota on Saturday night, have a nine-game postseason winning streak against Texas. New York knocked the Rangers out of the playoffs in their only three previous appearances between 1996 and ’99.
“You do worry about not playing for six days,” said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who celebrated his 46th birthday Thursday. “Hopefully, they won’t be rusty and they will come out and the rest actually did them good.”
After being called up by the Rangers for the first time in 2005, Wilson was 0-5 with a 12.05 ERA in six starts. But in 18 appearances out of the bullpen his rookie season, he had a 2.73 ERA, prompting Texas to continue using him in relief. The Rangers even opened the 2008 season with him as the closer.
But Wilson always wanted to be a starter again, and the Rangers gave the crafty and insightful lefty that chance during spring training this season. He responded by pitching 204 innings, leading the team in wins and holding left-handers to a major league-low .176 slugging percentage.
“He’s always had great stuff,” Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. “The difference now is his confidence.”