Yanks go marching along, slipping past Rangers, 3-1; Meek at plate again, Texas on edge of exit; Ledee drives in winner


NEW YORK -- The Texas Rangers stepped out of character and tried to do it with pitching last night, but the New York Yankees seem destined for an American League Championship Series showdown with the Cleveland Indians.

Despite a superb performance from Rangers starter Rick Helling, the Yankees stretched their Division Series winning streak against Texas to a record eight games with a 3-1 victory at Yankee Stadium.

Promising left fielder Ricky Ledee's seventh-inning double brought home the go-ahead run, propelling left-hander Andy Pettitte to his fifth career postseason victory and pushing the punchless Rangers to the threshold of another quick October exit.

The Yankees can close out the best-of-five series on Saturday night at The Ballpark In Arlington. The Indians will be in the same position when they face the Boston Red Sox tomorrow at Fenway Park.

Only an amazing change of fortune can prevent the Yankees and Indians from facing each other in the ALCS for the second year in a row.

Pettitte, who was the subject of intense trade speculation at midseason, again rewarded the Yankees' front office for sticking with him after a difficult first half.

He pitched 7 1/3 innings and gave up one run on seven hits, working out of several jams to improve his career record in postseason play to 5-4. Jeff Nelson finished the eighth and Mariano Rivera pitched a scoreless ninth to get his eighth career postseason save.

Helling worked into the seventh inning and gave up just five hits, but the Yankees were just resourceful enough to get the best of him -- especially with the Rangers still searching for something to ignite their dormant offensive attack.

Here are the sorry numbers: The Rangers, who scored 945 runs this year and led the major leagues with a .293 team batting average, scored one run on nine hits in the two games at Yankee Stadium. That, coincidentally, is the same number of runs they scored in last year's Division Series.

Texas manager Johnny Oates wasn't going to wait around forever for his offensive lineup to come to life. The Rangers entered the game with a string of 22 consecutive scoreless innings in postseason play, dating back to the only run they scored against the Yankees in last year's Division Series.

So, Oates shook up the starting lineup for last night's game, moving regular No. 9 hitter Royce Clayton into the leadoff spot and flip-flopping Ivan Rodriguez and Rusty Greer behind him.

The intent was to create more RBI opportunities for Rodriguez and cleanup hitter Juan Gonzalez, but Oates seemed more concerned with changing the club's approach after Tuesday's night's dismal two-hit performance belied a decided lack of aggressiveness at the plate.

"We became too passive Tuesday night," Oates said before the game. "Rafael's line drive to first, he swung the bat pretty good. Clayton struck out a couple of times, but had real good bat speed. Other than that, going back and looking at the tapes, we didn't have a whole lot of bat speed in our swings. We were too passive. Too patient."

Maybe the Rangers were trying to emulate the Yankees, who have become the best team in the American League by also being one of the most disciplined offensive teams in baseball.

"I sat down this afternoon with my hitting coach, Rudy Jaramillo, and he was in agreement with me that there is a fine line between being selective and controlled aggressiveness," Oates explained.

"Hopefully, we can get that point across tonight and maybe take some of the burden off of them after so much has been made of the Yankees' patience. I'd like us to play our game and not try to play the Yankees' game."

The new lineup did not get the desired results. The Rangers stretched their scoreless string to 25 innings before Gonzalez scorched a low line drive to left that barely cleared the wall for his record-tying sixth career Division Series home run.

He tied Yankees outfielders Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neill for the Division Series career record, but the Rangers continued to have trouble making the most of their scoring opportunities.

They had two runners on with none out in the second inning and came up empty when Pettitte got Lee Stevens to ground into an inning-ending double play.

They opened the fifth with a single by Roberto Kelly and a ground-rule double by Stevens, but Pettitte retired the next three batters in order.

The Yankees were having their problems, too. Rick Helling retired the first 10 batters he faced in order -- striking out five -- before Derek Jeter broke through with his club's first hit of the game in the fourth.

The game remained deadlocked until the seventh, when Ledee doubled into right center.

Playoffs today

NL Division Series

Atlanta (Glavine 14-11) at Houston (Hampton 22-4), 4: 09 p.m., ESPN

Arizona (Daal 16-9) at N.Y. Mets (Reed 11-5), 8: 10 p.m., chs. 11, 4

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