ARLINGTON, Texas -- The best-of-five Division Series, still so new that no one knows which cliches to use after each game, is all about home-field advantage.
The Texas Rangers split the first two games at Yankee Stadium, so -- in spite of their disappointing extra-inning loss on Wednesday night -- they have a significant edge going into Game 3 tonight at The Ballpark in Arlington.
They know it. The Yankees know it. The question is how it plays in the minds of the players on both clubs and how that might affect the outcome of this best-of-five opening round of the playoffs.
"I think home teams are always more comfortable," said Rangers manager Johnny Oates. "I think that most good teams play really well at home and try to make ends meet on the road. We expect to come back here and play better than we played in New York."
The Yankees have to be relieved that they got out of New York with a split, considering that they trailed by three runs in the second game and could just as likely be on the brink of elimination right now. But they rallied -- at least temporarily saving general manager Bob Watson the trouble of cleaning out his desk -- and go into tonight's game with a chance to move
within one victory of the American League Championship Series.
They just have to prove that their 1-5 record in Texas was a run of bad luck and the combined 44-15 score of those games simply a statistical aberration that has no bearing on this weekend.
Trouble is, the Rangers did the same thing to the Orioles and the Cleveland Indians this year.
"You have to put that out of your mind, because you have to play here," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "We need to get a lot better offensively right now. To win here, we've got to put up some points early so the pitchers don't have to feel like every pitch has to be perfect."
Left-hander Jimmy Key, who will face 25-year-old left-hander Darren Oliver in Game 3 tonight, throws like that anyway. He is a control pitcher who has to be fine-tuned to beat a good-hitting team, but was not effective in his two starts in Arlington during the regular season, going 0-2 with a 9.64 ERA.
"We haven't pitched well here," Torre said. "The basis of our success is pitching. If we don't do that, we don't win, or if we do win and don't do that, we got lucky."
The Yankees did both on Wednesday night. They pitched well -- getting nine innings of scoreless relief -- and they got lucky, fighting back from a three-run deficit and taking advantage of a 12th-inning throwing error by Dean Palmer to avoid a disastrous two-game sweep at Yankee Stadium.
It will all have been for naught if they don't figure out a way to shut down Rangers outfielder Juan Gonzalez, who hit a game-winning home run in Game 1 and hit two homers on Wednesday night. The rest of the Texas lineup has not been so successful, so the Yankees figure to give him a wide berth this weekend.
"If the opportunity presents itself, I think we'll do it [pitch around him]," Key said yesterday, "but sometimes you have to pitch to a guy. If you make good pitches, you can get him out. He has outs in his bat, too."
Gonzalez proved during yesterday's news conference that he doesn't have any doubts in his bat, saying that he was looking forward to continuing a hot streak that has put him in the national spotlight for the first time in his stellar career. And why not? In nine regular-season home games against the Yankees fTC the past two years, he has seven homers and 16 RBIs.
"I know they have a great pitching staff," Gonzalez said, "but I'm preparing myself and I'm concentrating very well. I'm ready for everybody and I'll continue to swing the bat."
There is room to wonder if the Rangers will be haunted by their inability to capitalize on Gonzalez's great performance in Game 2, but center fielder Darryl Hamilton insists that the club came home buoyed by its performance in New York.
"I don't think we could ask for a better situation, considering it's our first time in the postseason," Hamilton said. "I think we handled the situation pretty well. I think we've got our playoff experience."
Pub Date: 10/04/96