NEW YORK — The welcomed flight back to Texas took off a few hours after Wednesday's season-extending 7-2 win, but the journey actually began the night before.
It was late after Tuesday's loss when manager Joe Girardi gathered his Yankees to deliver what in essence was a simple message. You're talented, he told them, and certainly capable of the three victories needed to get back to the World Series. The key was to relax, he said, to play their game and be concerned with just one thing: winning Wednesday.
The impact was obvious — "Huge," CC Sabathia said — as soon as the Yankees assembled Wednesday afternoon for Game 5 of the AL Championship Series in what could have been their final game.
"There was a different feel today," reliever Kerry Wood said. "From the minute I walked in the door, even all the way up to when I was done pitching and I was sitting in the dugout, there was just a different feel today. I don't know how to describe it, it was just different. But it was good."
Maybe they were looser, as Nick Swisher said. Realized they really had nothing to lose, as Lance Berkman suggested. Or were more business-like, as Girardi surmised.
What they were, at least for one more day, was the Yankees.
"There was a determination," Girardi said. "We have not played extremely well in this series. There was determination that we were going to go out and play our game. … We knew what we had to do. The guys went out and did it."
And, they claimed after, they didn't have much doubt.
"Surprised? Not at all," said closer Mariano Rivera, one of their core four veterans. "How can I be surprised? That's what we do."
Sabathia got them started with the effective start they needed, allowing only two runs despite allowing 11 hits over six innings. Wood and Rivera provided the requisite relief, getting the final nine outs. The offense, finally, came alive, with Jorge Posada delivering the first of a series of much-needed clutch hits.
As an added bonus, the Rangers, who had played and pitched so well in the first four games, chipped in by coming apart, with an ineffective start by C.J. Wilson, a key defensive breakdown and carelessness on the bases.
"Those guys over there are champs," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "We didn't expect them to lay down, and they came out today and they were very aggressive."
There were two pivotal points.
The first was in the second, when the Yankees took advantage of their first opportunity, Posada singling in a run after Wilson walked two of the first three hitters. Then when Curtis Granderson singled to score Berkman, the Rangers got suddenly sloppy. Rightfielder Jeff Francoeur had Posada out at third but threw wide of the base. Then Wilson could have had Posada at home but flubbed the easy toss to the plate, giving the Yankees a 3-0 lead.
Whatever lingering tension the Yankees may have felt was gone with Posada's gallop around the bases. "There was some giggles on the bench," Girardi said.
And whatever doubt there was about the Yankees taking control was gone the next inning as Swisher and Robinson Cano, moved to the No. 3 spot in place of injured Mark Teixeira, hit back-to-back homers.
Then in the sixth, when the Rangers made their last gasp, loading the bases with one out to put the Yankees' five-run lead in peril, Sabathia was at his best. He got Matt Treanor to hit a slow grounder, trading a run for an out, then battled through eight pitches to get Mitch Moreland looking at strike three on his 112th and final delivery of the game.
The Rangers are still in a commanding position, with two chances for the one win they need to advance to the World Series for the first time in franchise history. Only four of the 14 teams that held 3-1 ALCS leads failed to win the pennant, and they're confident — especially with Cliff Lee looming in Game 7 — they won't join the list.
"We'll take our odds going home," Francoeur said. "What's there to panic about? We took two out of three here."
But the Yankees, having extended their season to at least Friday's Game 6, are equally confident.
"We feel good about where we are right now," Swisher said. "It wouldn't exactly be where we want to be, but to be here and to win this game, especially going back to Texas, our confidence level is extremely high."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]mes.com.