NEW YORK -- The Texas Rangers survived the onslaught. Now they must survive the Bronx.
The Rangers held off a furious late-season charge by the Seattle Mariners to win their first division title in franchise history. They overcame 25 years of historical insignificance only to find themselves in a highly charged playoff matchup against the New York Yankees in a place where the historical significance is as daunting as the opponent.
No one knows just what it will be like, but if the head-to-head series between the Yankees and the Orioles is any indication, Yankee Stadium still is a very difficult place to play pressure baseball.
"Yankee Stadium is a big plus for us," said Yankees manager Joe Torre, "because of all the energy. That's not to say anything about the energy in Texas, but Yankee Stadium is a very special place."
It starts with the monuments and what they represent. The Yankees have won 33 American League pennants and 22 World Series. They have a clubhouse full of guys who have played in the postseason, either here last year or with other teams. And then there's that ferocious fan following that can turn this part of the Bronx into a very unfriendly place.
Rangers manager Johnny Oates acknowledges the experience gap, but he said his club is prepared for whatever it encounters in the first two games of the best-of-five series.
"The word I think best describes our ballclub is resilient," Oates -- said.
They'll have to be. The final month of the season was exhausting, with the Rangers first looking like easy winners in the American League West and then looking back just in time to avoid another Mariners miracle. They clinched in time to catch their breath but now must face former Cy Young Award winner David Cone and future Cy Young Award winner Andy Pettitte in the road portion of the AL Division Series.
Technically, the Rangers have the home-field advantage, but they know they have to defeat at least one of those two premier pitchers to keep it.
"It depends on what you do in the first two games here," Oates said. "I don't know if it is an advantage."
The Yankees won four of six against the Rangers here during the regular season. The Rangers won five of six at The Ballpark in Arlington. John Burkett, acquired from the Florida Marlins late in the season, will start Game 1 tonight. Right-hander Ken Hill will pitch tomorrow. New York would appear to have the edge in both games.
"I think it's a good matchup because both clubs play well at home," Torre said. "That's why there's such an emphasis on the first two games."
The Yankees will be very tough to stop if they can get the ball to setup man Mariano Rivera and closer John Wetteland. They recently ended a string of 108 consecutive victories in games they led going into the ninth inning.
"We have to do what we do best -- pitch," Torre said. "If you make a mistake to those guys, it's not usually a single or a double. We like to shorten the game to seven innings and turn it over to our bullpen."
Oates is well aware of that.
"You better be," he said. "You're fooling yourself if you're not. The way [Jeff] Nelson is throwing right now, they'd probably like to get you into a six-inning game. That's one of their strengths. Maybe they can't hit as many home runs and extra-base hits as we did or Seattle did, but that is how they make up for it."
If the Rangers have proven to be survivors, they learned from one of the best. Oates emerged from a tumultuous situation in Baltimore to prove himself again as one of baseball's premier managers. He has the opportunity to beat the Yankees and possibly take his team into Baltimore for the American League Championship Series, but said yesterday that he harbors no grudge against the team that gave him his first chance to manage at the major-league level.
"No regrets, no revenge," Oates said. "Just a desire to show those who think I am not a good manager that, for this year, maybe I wasn't as bad as they thought I was. But Sparky Anderson warned me that you can get dumb again in a hurry."
Oates just hopes it doesn't happen here.
Pub Date: 10/01/96