ARLINGTON, Texas -- The long-suffering baseball fans of the Dallas/Fort Worth area got their first taste of postseason play last night and left with the same pained expression that characterized the first 25 years of baseball in this part of Texas.
The Texas Rangers, who had made a habit of mugging the New York Yankees at The Ballpark in Arlington during the regular season, got their pockets picked in the late innings and suffered a 3-2 loss that pushed them to the brink of elimination in the best-of-five Division Series.
Bernie Williams, who had homered in the top of the first and stolen a home run from Rangers outfielder Rusty Greer in the bottom of that inning, brought the Yankees from behind with a sacrifice fly in the ninth, and Mariano Duncan followed with a two-out single off reliever Mike Henneman to put the champagne on ice in the visitors' clubhouse.
The Yankees can close out the series today when former Rangers left-hander Kenny Rogers faces right-hander Bobby Witt in Game 4.
"It was just a great game, and it feels great," said Williams. "Tomorrow's going to be a bigger game, but I think we have the momentum now."
It had to be particularly disheartening for 25-year-old Rangers starter Darren Oliver, who had outdueled playoff veteran Jimmy Key only to lose the game after giving up back-to-back singles in the top of the ninth. Henneman could not hold on, and Duncan's single brought Yankees closer John Wetteland into the game. End of conversation.
When it comes down to a battle of the bullpens, it is no contest. Wetteland walked Mickey Tettleton to lead off the bottom of the ninth, but made a fine play on a one-out chopper by pinch hitter Warren Newson and struck out Darryl Hamilton to record his first career postseason save.
The loss left Rangers manager Johnny Oates to explain why he did not go to his bullpen to start the ninth inning, but Oliver had given up just a run on four hits and had thrown just 101 pitches through eight.
"The kid was pitching pretty well," Oates said. "I know that a lot of teams go right to their closer to start the ninth, but the people who have watched our club know that is not the way we do it. He went eight innings and gave up four hits. I was going to give him a chance to keep pitching."
Key didn't embarrass himself, either. He pitched five innings and gave up two runs on five hits, but left looking like a loser after the Yankees ran themselves out of a promising rally in the fourth and made a defensive lapse that led to a potentially decisive run in the fifth.
"This could have been a game that we lost rather than the Texas Rangers won," said Yankees manager Joe Torre, "so it was very important for us to come back like we did. It was a great game to win."
Juan Gonzalez hit a home run, of course. He apparently homers in every Rangers game. Ivan Rodriguez drove in the other Rangers run with a double in the fifth that stood until the ninth-inning rally took Key off the hook and gave right-hander Jeff Nelson the victory.
Apparently, Williams just wasn't in the spirit of the first home playoff game in Rangers history. He spent both halves of the first inning trying to take the joy out of it for the sellout crowd of 50,860.
Williams reached out and poked a fly ball to the opposite field that traveled just far enough to clear the right-field fence at the shortest point in the ballpark -- 325 feet from home plate. Then he showed that there is no justice in the baseball world when he went over the fence in straightaway center field to steal a 400-foot home run from Greer.
"I was really pumped up," Williams said. "Just the way the crowd was and how electrified the atmosphere was. I was just very pumped up in the first inning."
The game was a collection of colorful moments, seemingly juxtaposed for maximum effect. Williams put on a one-man show in the first inning. The Rangers provided the entertainment in the fourth, with a funny-looking double play in the top of the inning and an amusing scene during Gonzalez's game-tying at-bat in the bottom.
Gonzalez led off the inning with a foul ball down the left-field line that was so close to being a home run that someone mistakenly set off the stadium fireworks; either that or the Rangers are one team that is able to appreciate a good foul ball.
It was a premature conflagration, but only by a couple of pitches. Gonzalez set the Arlington sky on fire again when he hammered a full-count fastball for the Rangers' first-ever postseason home run.
Texas, which lost Game 2 on a wild throw by Dean Palmer, took the lead with the help of a defensive lapse by the Yankees.
Kevin Elster walked with one out and went all the way to third on a stolen-base attempt when no one showed up at second to field catcher Joe Girardi's throw. Rodriguez gave Texas the lead one out later with a double down the right-field line.
"We almost blew this game," Williams said. "I think we were just trying too hard. But we came back. That makes it sweet."
Rangers vs. Yankees
Yesterday: Yankees won, 3-2
Series: Yankees lead 2-1
Game 4: Today, 1 p.m.
Cardinals vs. Padres
Yesterday: Did not play
Series: Cardinals lead 2-0
Game 3: Today, 7: 30 p.m.
Dodgers vs. Braves
Yesterday: Did not play
Series: Braves lead 2-0
Game 3: Today, 4 p.m.
Pub Date: 10/05/96