NEW YORK — They were facing the end of their season and a miserable winter after that.
Not to worry, Joe Girardi said. Speaking in the wee hours before his players went home for a few hours sleep ahead of Game 5, the New York Yankees manager implored them not to give up.
“That was huge,” CC Sabathia said. “Just having us be able to relax and not panic.”
No panic here. Sabathia pitched like a champion, and the Yankees are heading for Texas.
Nick Swisher and Robinson Cano hit consecutive homers to build an early cushion, Sabathia made the lead stand up and the Yankees beat the Rangers 7-2 Wednesday to close within 3-2 in the AL championship series.
“We're right where we need to be,” Swisher said.
A late-arriving crowd for the late-afternoon game wondered whether this would be it for the defending World Series champs after Texas outscored them 25-5 while winning three straight.
A difficult comeback? Yes.
As Girardi remembered telling his players, “Before we lost the three games in a row, we won four in a row.” He added: “Just look at tomorrow. Win a game tomorrow.”
By the time Curtis Granderson hit an eighth-inning homer for his second RBI of the game, belief among the Yankees was starting to grow.
Now the teams will go deep in the heart of Texas to decide the pennant in the best-of-seven series. When they resume in Arlington for Game 6, Phil Hughes starts for the Yankees against Colby Lewis in a rematch of Game 2, won by the Rangers 7-2.
“It's great. We're going back home,” Lewis said. “We've got to win one out of two.”
Texas may be holding the ultimate postseason ace in the hole: Cliff Lee would start a Game 7 against Andy Pettitte.
“Who cares about Cliff going in Game 7?” Texas right fielder Jeff Francoeur said. “We've got a game to win in Game 6.”
Still, Lee's 7-0 postseason record is on their minds. In the 50th anniversary of a franchise that has never reached the World Series, Texas remains one win away.
“We're in a good position,” second baseman Ian Kinsler said.
New York is trying to overcome its first 3-1 postseason deficit 1958. Since the LCS went to a best-of-seven format, 24 of the 30 previous teams to take 3-1 series leads have won pennants.
For Yankees fans, 2004 is still fresh. That's when New York won the first three games of the ALCS, but the Boston Red Sox became the first major league team to rebound from 3-0 postseason deficit.
“Crazier things have happened,” Swisher said.
Yankees players actually dressed for success. They all arrived at the ballpark ready for a postgame charter flight.
“Our guys came in, everybody was wearing a suit,” Swisher said.
Sabathia recovered from an erratic opener, staying away from too much trouble against Josh Hamilton and Texas' big bats. Rangers slugger Nelson Cruz made an early exit with hamstring trouble, a day after Yankees star Mark Teixeira was lost for the postseason with a hamstring injury.
Cruz expects to play Friday. But no matter what, the season is over for Teixeira. The All-Star first baseman was removed from the postseason roster and replaced by Eduardo Nunez, and Teixeira would not be eligible for the World Series. Lance Berkman took over at first base and had a scare when he slipped chasing Kinsler's foul pop, causing his head and back to snap back. Berkman needed smelling salts in the dugout at the half inning. He stayed in, and caught Elvis Andrus' foul pop for the final out.
“I hurt pretty much the entire back side from the top of the head to the rear-end area,” Berkman said.
On what would have been Bob Sheppard's 100th birthday and Mickey Mantle's 79th, the Yankees took a 3-0 lead in the second as losing pitcher C.J. Wilson had trouble with the muddy mound and created a hole with a pair of four-pitch walks. Jorge Posada and Granderson had run-scoring singles, and another run scored on an overthrow of third by Francoeur for an error in right field.
Posada, a snail-like runner with just 20 steals in 16 seasons, sped home from first base.
“He looked like Rickey Henderson out there,” said Derek Jeter, Posada's core four buddy.
Girardi had sensed a change in attitude.
“There was determination that we were going to go out and play our game today,” he said. “I saw it during BP.”
Sabathia lasted just four innings in the opener, when he started on eight days' rest and the Yankees rallied from a five-run deficit. Leads of 5-0 and 6-1 never seemed comfortable in this one as he allowed two runs and 11 hits — matching his season high — in six innings with no walks.
“I just wanted to fight, no matter what the situation was, no matter how many runners were on base in any given inning,” he said.
His key outs came in the sixth, when the Rangers loaded the bases with one out.
Matt Treanor, who had homered in the fifth, hit an RBI grounder. Then, culminating an eight-pitch at-bat, Sabathia froze No. 9 hitter Mitch Moreland with a curveball to strike him out. The big man responded with a fist pump.
“Just threw a cutter,” Sabathia said. “Ended up backing him up.”
Kerry Wood had his second big pickoff of the series in the seventh. Andrus singled leading off, advanced on a wild pitch and was caught leaning by Wood, who caught Kinsler off first in the eighth inning of the opener. After Wood struck out three in two scoreless innings, Mariano Rivera finished in a non-save situation as the moon rose above the ballpark in right.
“It's not disappointing. It's a seven-game series,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “Those guys over there are champs. We didn't expect them to lay down, and they came out today and they were very aggressive.”
Wilson threw just 48 of 93 pitches for strikes, giving up six runs — five earned — six hits and four walks in six innings as Texas lost for the first time in six postseason road games this year.
Sabathia gave up more hits, but Texas couldn't break through.
“We had Sabathia bending,” Washington said. “He didn't break.”
New York is lucky the series isn't over. Texas has outscored the Yankees 32-18 and outhit them .316 to .217, including .348 to .160 with runners in scoring position.
Alex Rodriguez (.176), Swisher (.105) and Marcus Thames (.154) all have failed to hit their weight. Teixeira (0 for 14) has been replaced by Berkman (.222).
“We have not played extremely well in this series,” Girardi said.
For Texas, though, this was enough.
“There's no frustration or feeling like we didn't accomplish what we wanted to do.” third baseman Michael Young said. “We'll just go home and try to finish it off.”
NOTES: Cruz came out in the fifth and was replaced by David Murphy. Cruz was on the disabled list three times during the season with hamstring injuries.