ARLINGTON, Texas -- Maybe this isn't the same magical New York Yankees team that rewrote the record book last year and cruised through the playoffs and World Series, but it certainly must have looked that way to the Texas Rangers.
The 1998 Yankees swept the Division Series, holding the vaunted Rangers offensive attack to a single run.
The 1999 Yankees?
Future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens shut out the Rangers on three hits for seven innings and Darryl Strawberry provided all the offensive punch on the way to a 3-0 Game 3 victory that propelled the Yankees into the American League Championship Series for the third time in the past four years.
Strawberry launched a three-run homer in the first inning that would stand until the Yankees congregated on the infield to celebrate.
It was never in doubt.
The Yankees blew out the Rangers behind Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez in the series opener and rode left-hander Andy Pettitte to victory in the second game at Yankee Stadium. The scenery was different at the Ballpark in Arlington, but the outcome was not. If anyone's still counting, the Yankees have now won nine straight Division Series games against the Rangers, dating to 1996.
The Rangers led the major leagues with a .293 team batting average during the regular season, but managed just 14 hits in the three-game series -- 12 of them singles. The Yankees, for all the angst about the condition of their starting rotation coming out of the regular season, put on a pitching clinic that included three quality starts and a combined 4 2/3 innings of one-hit relief from Jeff Nelson and Mariano Rivera.
Once again, they seem to be at the top of their game at just the right time.
"I think we're playing a very calm, yet aggressive and confident game right now," said manager Joe Torre. Next stop, Yankee Stadium, where they will open the ALCS on Wednesday.
The sellout crowd of 50,269 came to The Ballpark to see the worm turn, and there was reason to believe that it might. The Rangers were on their home turf for the first time in the postseason, facing a supposedly diminished version of the legendary Rocket.
They even had the blessing of one of the patron saints of Texas sports. Dallas Cowboys Hall of Famer Roger Staubach threw out the ceremonial first pitch and guaranteed a Rangers victory.
That was before Strawberry drove in more runs with one first-inning swing than the Rangers had scored in their previous five Division Series games. His three-run homer to left-center field traveled 415 feet and jacked up the pressure on the beleaguered Texas lineup.
"It always feels good to come through in a big situation," said Strawberry. "When you get three runs and you have Roger Clemens on the mound, you have to feel good about your chances."
Rangers starter Esteban Loaiza had given up a one-out triple to Derek Jeter that bounded off the padding atop the left-field wall. Jeter actually was stopped at second -- blocked on the basepath by Texas infielder Mark McLemore -- but was awarded third on the obstruction. Loaiza complicated the situation with a walk to Bernie Williams before striking out Tino Martinez to bring Strawberry to the plate.
The home run was his first hit in the series and the eighth postseason jack of his career.
Clemens went right to work protecting the early advantage. He did not face a significant challenge until Lee Stevens bounced out to end the fourth with two runners on base. When he did give up a hard-hit ball, it regularly ended up in the glove of center fielder Williams, who made a series of fine running catches.
"You watch what 'El Duque' did and Andy [Pettitte] did, but that doesn't make it any easier," Clemens said, "because you're waiting for them [the Rangers] to break out. They're dangerous."
The Yankees had cause to wonder going into the game just what Clemens would take to the mound. He had lost four of his six starts in September and struggled to control a live fastball in his final regular-season start against the Orioles. He also came with a checkered postseason record -- which featured just one victory in nine starts.
"There have been a lot of questions about why he hasn't been as good this year, but he turned the page tonight," Torre said afterward. "Tonight, Roger Clemens was Roger Clemens. This is the pitcher we traded for."
Clemens kept the Rangers off-balance for most of the evening, though the Yankees got a scare when Tom Goodwin hit a sharp one-hopper that struck him just below the right knee in the fifth.
He took another comebacker off his right hand in the sixth inning and looked uncomfortable when he left the mound for the final time in the seventh, but seemed anxious to get back out there in the ALCS.
Someone asked if last night's game was the return of the "real" Roger Clemens. "I don't think I've ever left," he answered.
Loaiza settled down nicely after the Strawberry blast, but the damage was done.
"I've got four months to figure out why we can score almost at will during the regular season and not even sniff the plate when we get here," said Rangers manager Johnny Oates.
Quiet bunch The Rangers scored but one run in each of the last two Division Series:
99 ................Score........... H .........NY P
Gm 1 .........NY 8, Tx 0 .......2 .....Her'dez
Gm 2 .........NY 3, Tx 1 .......7 ......Pettitte
Gm 3 .........NY 3, Tx 0 .......5 .....Clemens
98 ................Score ...........H ............NY P
Gm 1 .........NY 2, Tx 0 .......5 ...........Wells
Gm 2 .........NY 3, Tx 1 .......5 ........Pettitte
Gm 3 .........NY 4, Tx 0 .......3 ...........Cone