Playoff success is a confidence game

Only one other manager in the Texas Rangers' long history of skippers has stood in the same place that Ron Washington stands today, and unfortunately, we can't ask Johnny Oates how it felt to be there, on the cusp of reaching the dream of a lifetime.

Oates did it three times in his tenure as Rangers manager, winning the only three division titles in franchise history.

Until now.

If Johnny O. were still here, I know exactly the counsel he would offer Washington as the Rangers prepare to dive into their final stretch of 17 games to polish off this historic season.

Stay the course.

Hold it steady.

Finish the job.

That's why I won't even bother to ask Washington how he's feeling right now, or what his strategy will be for these final 17 games. First, I have a pretty good idea what the answer to both questions would be. Second -- and this would make Oates proud -- Washington would be uncomfortable talking about anything except continuing to take it one game at a time.

Privately, he might share a few thoughts. But for public consumption at this critical juncture? No way.

Another former Rangers manager, Bobby Valentine, offered good advice to his former team on ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" telecast a few days ago.

"Feel it. Believe it. Understand that you're a good team going in."

Into the playoffs, he meant, and those are words of wisdom the Rangers can and should take to heart.

It is important that they feel good about themselves right now. As Valentine noted, don't ever underrate confidence. When the playoffs arrive and if, as may happen, the Rangers are facing the New York Yankees in the first round, the boys from Texas are going to feel as though the world is against them.

No one -- at least no one in the media capital of the world that is New York -- is going to believe in them in the playoffs until they step up and erase the memory of their sordid history in postseason play. Oh, sure, the East Coast writers will say, the Rangers are finally back in the playoffs, but we know how they perform there. We've seen it first hand, three times to the tune of one solitary victory in 10 postseason games. What did they score, two lousy runs in six games in '98 and '99?

Yawn. Who will the Yankees play next?

And never mind that three-game sweep of the Yankees that the Rangers just completed. That wasn't the playoffs, the Eastern wags will assert. Wait till October arrives and the pressure is really on. That's when the real Yankees and the real Rangers will show up.

Sorry to just bluntly lay it out like that, but get used to it. That Eastern bias that everything New York is perfect and anything else is below notice is headed our way like an express train.

Don't let it bother you. Most important, the Rangers can't let it bother them and they can't believe it either.

I don't think they will. Whether the Yankees, their fans or their media want to believe it, this isn't 1998 or 1999 and these aren't those Rangers. More important, these aren't those Yankees, a team that was arguably one of the best of all time in the middle of a dynastic run.

Not to belittle the Yanks, because they're still plenty good. But the Rangers can play with them. In fact, they can play with anyone. Frankly, I'd rather see the Rangers face the Yankees in the first round than Tampa Bay, with its lineup of outstanding young pitchers.

But let's not kid ourselves, this isn't the same Rangers' team without Cliff Lee at the head of the rotation and Josh Hamilton in the middle of the batting order. They are the difference-makers on this team.

Lee, when he's on, can match up with any other ace in baseball, and that includes CC Sabathia. Hamilton is capable of turning a game around with one mighty swing.

That's why getting and keeping them both healthy -- along with finishing off the gritty Oakland A's -- has to be the Rangers' main focus over the final 17 games.

Oh, yeah, add one more goal to that list: continue to build confidence.

It's critical, Valentine said, that the Rangers are hitting on all cylinders at least a week before the playoffs begin.

The Rangers have to hit the end of the season fully believing that they can whip the Yankees or whomever they meet in the playoffs. Having Lee and Hamilton ready to go is the key to having that confidence.

Then it won't matter what anyone back East has to say. All that will matter is what happens on the field.

It has been a long season, a marathon race. The finish line, while still a few laps away, is finally in sight.

I swear I can hear Johnny Oates whispering his sage advice.

Stay the course.

Hold it steady.

Finish the job.

And one more thing.

The best is yet to come.

Jim Reeves, a former columnist with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is a regular contributor to ESPNDallas.com.