ARLINGTON -- The signs scattered around Arlington -- "The Yankees fear the Rangers" -- hung as proudly as the playoff bunting at Rangers Ballpark. And Texas is out to prove them right.Despite being the American League West winners and knocking off the AL East champion Rays in the Division Series, it's difficult to be considered a favorite against a strong Yankees club. New York may be the Wild Card entrant, but it still had the second-best record in the Majors and has its eyes on defending last season's World Series title and securing pennant No. 28. "People like to talk about the Yankees because they are the Yankees," said second baseman Ian Kinsler. "But we are not really afraid of anyone." At least, that's the attitude radiating from a quirky and unusually close-knit Texas club. For the Rangers -- dubbed by several players as a "blue-collar" bunch -- the best-of-seven AL Championship Series against the Yankees isn't a daunting task. Rather, it's a necessary step toward the magic number of eight -- the number of wins required to crown the Rangers World Series champs. "If we were scared, you would have seen that in Tampa," said reliever Darren O'Day. "We've been swept in New York, Tampa, Minnesota all this year [in the] regular season. We go in there and win the first two in Tampa. Stuff like that. You kind of just push back."
The Rangers and the Yankees met eight times during the regular season, with New York sweeping a three-game series in the Bronx in April and the Rangers sweeping their home three-game set last month. The teams split two games in Arlington in August, bringing the season total to 4-4, perhaps foreshadowing a long, evenly matched series.But the Rangers believe they hold the upper hand for one simple reason: They are not the same club that left New York without a win this spring. "The last month and a half, two months of the season, we played our best defense," said third baseman Michael Young, who commended his teammates' efforts in improving their game, a key facet of a revamped Rangers squad that has emerged stronger despite adversity this season. "[With] everything we've kind of been through, I think it makes the guys on our team not waste any opportunities," added Young, the veteran leader of a club that secured its first postseason-series win on Tuesday night. "We are going to go and empty the tank every game. And it starts tomorrow." It will begin with a starter who was just trying to make the team in Spring Training. Lefty C.J. Wilson, as relaxed and glib as a 15-year-veteran, is understandably wary of placing too much emphasis on this series, this game, and yes, this opponent. Wilson acknowledges that it is a big deal to be here, playing for the right to advance to the World Series, but he shies away from the idea that overcoming the Yankees -- who have won nine consecutive postseason games against the Rangers -- is perhaps the biggest deal. "There is some sort of gamesmanship in the question-and-answer phase before something happens," said Wilson, who, like nearly all the Rangers, is playing in his first postseason. "You feel confident, but you cannot let it come out too much or else it's going to look bad." In other words: confident, not cocky. "We're the best Texas Rangers team ever," Kinsler said. "There's really no arguing that. So, we've accomplished that, now we just need to continue that this year and into the future." In the Rangers' immediate future is a two-game set at home, with Colby Lewis taking the ball in Saturday's Game 2 before the series shifts to New York, for a contest headlined by ace Cliff Lee, who was so close to joining the Yankees this July that New York's ace CC Sabathia, who played with Lee in Cleveland, was fielding calls from his teammates asking about him. Fast forward a few months and the one that got away for the Yankees is pitching in October in the Bronx in what is sure to be hostile enemy territory. "Obviously, everyone talks about how difficult it is to go into Yankee Stadium and win," said outfielder David Murphy. "And we didn't exactly play great baseball there this year, and it's probably going to be a whole different situation that none of us ever experienced. "But we are not going to fear anybody, any team, any crowd. We are just going to enjoy it all. I think we've shown through what we did last series, that we are not the type of team that lets pressure get to us. We've played loose and had fun all season long, and we've taken that approach into the postseason." And for manager Ron Washington, who called this season "a dream come true," his team is one step closer to turning the ultimate dream into reality. "We started in February, Spring Training, we made a commitment to each other that we felt like we were able to get to this point," said Washington. "And at the time, you know, a lot of people thought it was words. But we have a bond inside of that clubhouse that goes a little deeper than words. And we went out this year and we put it together." And they have no intention of stopping now.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.