By Sean McAdam
ARLINGTON, Texas -- In a subdued clubhouse, the Texas Rangers kept saying all the right things in the apparent belief that if they repeated them often enough and earnestly enough, soon they would come to believe their own words.
The Rangers had led the New York Yankees 5-0 after six innings of Game One of the American League Championship Series ,and 5-1 after seven. But then their entire bullpen seemed to implode in the eighth and they were left trying to sift through the remains of a deflating 6-5 loss to the Yankees.
Ron Washington had used five different pitchers in the eighth, but not until the eighth Yankee stepped to the plate that inning did a Texas pitcher record an out.
You've heard of teams willingly trading runs for outs in the late innings. The Rangers engaged in another kind of swap -- pitchers for outs. It was a deal they ultimately lived to regret.
Darren O'Day, one of the handful of Rangers relievers who tripped and fell in the eighth, kept repeating that his team now had six chances to win four games, and put like that, the loss didn't sound quite as catastrophic.
Except that, for the Rangers, it was.
It's hard to imagine a bigger shift than the one that occurred in the eighth.
The Rangers had jumped on CC Sabathia for three runs after just three hitters in the bottom of the first and when Michael Young drove a booming double to right-center in the fourth, Texas was perfectly positioned to grab a 1-0 lead in the series.
Beating Sabathia, the Yankees' ace, in Game One would have been a huge momentum boost. Beating the Yankees for just the second time in 11 postseason tries would have calmed some nerves.
Even with a loss Saturday in Game Two, the Rangers would have been set up to take a 2-to-1 lead with a win from Cliff Lee Monday night in New York, halfway home to the World Series.
Instead, the Rangers' late-inning splat means something entirely different.
They couldn't win a game in which they chased their opponent's best starting pitcher after just four innings. They couldn't end their own postseason home losing streak (now at three and counting) and will be forced to answer questions about failing to win at The Ballpark again Saturday.
A win and they would have been in command of the series, early as it is. A win and perhaps this would have been the game they looked back on as the turning point.
A loss, by contrast, makes their quest that much harder, amping up the degree of difficulty in a series that was already plenty challenging. A loss and the Rangers can't help but wonder, privately, if this is where it got away.
"How bad was this one?'' a reporter asked of Darren Oliver, who contributed to the relief meltdown by walking the only two hitters he faced.
"The loss or how we lost it?'' responded Oliver, offering up a multiple-choice answer.
Oliver's answer was revealing. It wasn't just the final score that sat uncomfortably in the Rangers' guts; it was how that score came about.
Had Sabathia stifled them and tossed a shutout, it wouldn't have been as devastating. But they had climbed on Sabathia. They had already done the hard part.
"We should have won that game,'' said Oliver, a veteran of eight different teams across 17 major-league seasons. "Obviously, we thought we had this one. If we tried to do what we did in the eighth inning the next time out, it wouldn't happen.''
Others sounded the notion that, with Game Two starting at 3 p.m. Central time Saturday afternoon, the Rangers would have precious little time to ruminate about this defeat.
"Dude,'' said an exasperated C.J. Wilson, who limited the Yankees to a single run over the first six innings, "it's just one game.''
But in the aftermath of one that got away, it was hard not to feel that the Rangers had already let the ALCS, barely underway, get away from them, too.