Rangers pitchers are a hit against Rays

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The last time Rangers Ballpark in Arlington hosted a playoff game, George W. Bush was Texas governor, Tom Hicks was a relatively new owner, Jon Daniels was fresh out of Cornell and the Rangers were searching for momentum after dropping the first two games in Yankee Stadium.

What a difference 11 years makes.

Texas comes into its first home postseason game this century in control of the best-of-five ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays after sweeping both games in Florida. It will be a raucous sellout crowd Saturday afternoon hoping to see the club win its first playoff series -- and its first playoff home game.

Certainly, timely hitting and bursts of power have helped put the team in this position (and that offense was MIA in the Rangers' three previous ALDS appearances). But even the hitters understand the biggest reason the team is poised for a deep postseason run is pitching.

"Good pitching beats good hitting," outfielder Jeff Francoeur said. "Look what Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson did in these two games. Did you see our bullpen, too? When you get pitching like that, you don't have to hit too well."

Through two games of the ALDS, the Rangers have allowed one run on eight hits. Both starting pitchers made it through at least six innings and did so with few issues thanks to throwing strikes early in the count, something preached passionately all season by manager Ron Washington, pitching coach Mike Maddux and bullpen coach Andy Hawkins.

Wilson was constantly pitching ahead in Thursday's Game 2, and the Rays were 0-for-18 when he was ahead or even in the count. That came one day after Lee threw first-pitch strikes to 21 of the 27 hitters he faced, helping him go seven scoreless innings.

The bullpen has lined up according to plan, pitching 4 2/3 scoreless innings. With runners at second and third and one out in the seventh inning of Thursday's game, Washington used Darren O'Day to get the second out and Darren Oliver to get the third. It was the same way he used them during the regular season, making sure to get the matchups he wanted during the critical parts of the game.

"Our pitchers are going out there with a lot of confidence right now," Michael Young said.

That confidence developed over the course of a productive 2010 season. The Rangers finished with the fourth-best ERA in the American League at 3.93, the lowest for a Texas staff since 1990, when Nolan Ryan was in the rotation. All four scheduled starters in this series have ERAs below 4.00. As for the bullpen, it sported a 3.38 ERA, the second-lowest in the AL.

So is there one common thread running through all the pitchers?

"Intestinal fortitude," Maddux said. "I can't say the other word. They all put their heart and guts on the line every time."

The Rangers have put up the impressive numbers despite moving pieces around and altering the look of the staff since the 2009 season ended. And even then, it wasn't exactly the group the front office or coaching staff figured would be leading them in the playoffs.

Lee was in Seattle, pitching for a team that became the chic pick for many experts to win the AL West. Wilson was in the bullpen and Colby Lewis, the Game 3 starter, had just finished his second season in Japan. Tommy Hunter, who is scheduled to start Game 4 if needed, began 2010 in the minors because of a spring training injury.

Rich Harden and Scott Feldman, expected to be at the top of the rotation, didn't make the ALDS roster. Oliver was in the Angels' bullpen for the playoffs. Alexi Ogando, still waiting to throw his first playoff pitch, was trying to get a visa to come to the United States. Neftali Feliz, who set a rookie record with 40 saves, wasn't even the club's closer when the season began.

The only player that has pitched in the postseason for Texas in the role he had in 2009 is submariner O'Day as a setup man.

"Those guys have carried us most of the season," Washington said. "Our starters have given us innings and we've been able to use the bullpen the way we want. Pitching like that calms everyone down and takes the pressure off."

That's what the club has done in the first two games of the ALDS. They held the Rays to eight hits total and an impressive 1-for-13 with nine strikeouts with runners in scoring position in two road wins. They've been aggressive in the strike zone and have not allowed the Rays to get a rally going and generate momentum.

Maddux expects Lewis to continue that trend Saturday.

"Colby's kind of a rock," Maddux said. "He's been the same guy, win-lose-draw, up or down. He's pretty consistent. He's a very, very solid guy. He has a lot of confidence in himself and confidence in his abilities. He's kind of Cool Hand Luke for me."

Lewis started the day after the Rangers clinched the AL West title in Oakland. On Saturday, he'll take the mound with a chance to help the club start another champagne-pouring celebration and punch a ticket to the franchise's first AL Championship Series.

"I'm excited about it," said Lewis, who led the Rangers with 196 strikeouts. "Basically, I'm just going to do what I have been trying to do all year, to go out and get ahead of guys, make quality pitches and get quick outs."

Sounds like the same plan Lee and Wilson executed to perfection in Tampa, doesn't it?

Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.