ARLINGTON, Texas – The towel-waving bandwagon was loaded for bear and C.J. Wilson had the wheel as the radio blared out of windows cranked all the way down.
The next thing anyone can remember, the Texas Rangers swerved sideways in a ditch and the big, bad New York Yankees rumbled by, making off with the hubcaps, the fuzzy dice, and most remarkably, Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
“They used to have this show called The Twilight Zone,” Wilson said as he tried to explain the feeling of watching his 5-2 lead erode to a 6-5 deficit in the nightmarish eighth inning. “We were all kind of like pacing the dugout because it was just kind of surreal in a way.”
Seven innings into Game 1 and the Rangers were stunning the baseball world, even if the Yankees were not yet impressed. Texas had put together a near-perfect game. It tagged CC Sabathia for three runs after three batters. Josh Hamilton broke his offensive slumber with a three-run, line-drive homer, teeing off on a Sabathia curve ball, no less.
The Rangers made it 5-0 in the fourth as Michael Young’s bat also finally joined the postseason parade. He singled in front of Hamilton in the first and doubled in a pair in the fourth, and the party was just getting started.
Wilson was befuddling the Bombers, mixing his pitches and keeping his count low. Through six innings, he reduced the first four mashers in the Yankees' lineup, Derek Jeter, Nick Swisher, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, to boys. None hit the ball hard as they combined for a doughnut in their first 12 at-bats.
Wilson had retired the side in order three times and hadn’t faced more than five batters in any inning.
“I put together a really good game plan,” Wilson said. “I know what my strengths are and I know what their strengths are. I attacked pretty much straight on my plan.”
Even when he made a mistake as he did in the seventh -- a changeup down the pipe that Robinson Cano popped into the right-field bleachers to end the shutout -- Wilson responded with three quick outs, and more roars from the red-drenched sellout crowd.
“The only ball that was really hit hard was Cano’s,” Wilson said. “Everything else was like fisted, pine-tar shot or off the knob with a Rafael Nadal one-hand backhand. I did what I set out to do -- almost. I pitched almost good enough.”
And then came the eighth inning, when glory turned to dust. Scrappy No. 9-hitter Brett Gardner led off and poked a grounder to first. Wilson threw a slider that he wanted in the dirt, but it didn’t go there. Gardner bolted out of the left-handed batter's box. First baseman Jorge Cantu gobbled it up and tossed it underhand to Wilson as he raced to the bag. But, Gardner slid head-first and his hand reached the bag first.
“I stepped on his hand so he was safe,” Wilson said. “That’s what he’s good at, hitting little choppers and beating them out.”
Jeter then doubled into left and the scrappy Gardner came all the way around to score. After 104 pitches and a standing ovation, Wilson’s day was done. A victory seemed inevitable.
“C.J. was great,” Young said. “He threw a great game.”
But, then Wilson could only pace the dugout as manager Ron Washington made the slow walk to the mound not once, not twice, but three more times before the first of five Rangers pitchers in the inning could record the first out. And by then, Wilson and the Rangers no longer had the lead.
“We were still trying to keep it loose out there and we understand what’s going on and realize we need a stop somewhere,” said David Murphy, who pinch-hit in the fifth and then took over in left field. “By the time we got it, it was too late. They did a great job of putting together a big rally and a lot of good at-bats.”
As crushing a loss as it might have been, and the subdued clubhouse suggested it was, Wilson and his teammates tried to trumpet the spirit of optimism. They spoke of this ALCS being a seven-game series for a reason, of feeling good about battering Sabathia, about how close they had come to seizing a 1-0 lead and how they would come back strong in Saturday’s Game 2.
“I think everybody in here is kind of taken aback a little bit by the fact that we lost, but at the same time we’re all kind of thinking about it as you know if we just execute our plan a little bit better than we walk away with it easy,” Wilson said. “I don’t think anybody in here is worried at all. I think we’re all in here a lot more confident than anybody else thinks we would be at this point.”
Wilson will have to wait until Game 5, or if they’re desperate enough, perhaps Game 4 to get back on the mound. Game 2 is mere hours away (3:07 p.m.), leaving little time to process the Game 1 collapse. Of course, Wilson attempted to make it seem as though the team had already put it behind.
“It’s baseball,” Wilson said. “Like Wash says, that’s the way baseball go.”