ARLINGTON, Texas — The Yankees avoid Cliff Lee until Game 3 of the AL Championship Series. In the opener, they instead face another Rangers left-hander who has been greatly influenced by the postseason ace in their short time together.
"Before he was here, I was actually a right-handed second baseman," C.J. Wilson joked Thursday.
Because Lee pitched a deciding Game 5 Tuesday in the division series against the Rays, Wilson starts Game 1 against New York and lefty CC Sabathia tonight at Rangers Ballpark.
Wilson already was making an impressive transition from reliever in his long-desired chance to be a starter again before Texas acquired Lee on July 9. But Wilson immediately began watching his new teammate and asking questions.
"The thing with Cliff is that he keeps his process the same no matter what is going on around him," Wilson said. "As I've gotten more comfortable in my role as a starting pitcher, I've had to thicken those walls in my bubble to keep everything else out and stay in my little zone and stay with what is making me successful, and that's the thing he and I talk about all the time."
Wilson won 15 games in the regular season, then followed Lee's spectacular Game 1 start in the first round with a gem of his own, allowing two hits in 6 1/3 scoreless innings. After winning those games at Tampa Bay, the Rangers lost both at home and had to go back to the Trop for the deciding game with Lee on the mound.
The Yankees, who haven't played since wrapping up a three-game sweep over Minnesota on Saturday, have a nine-game postseason winning streak against Texas. New York knocked the Rangers out of the playoffs in their only three previous appearances between 1996 and 1999.
"You do worry about not playing for six days," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who celebrated his 46th birthday Thursday. "Hopefully, they won't be rusty and they will come out and the rest actually did them good."
Lee won both of his World Series starts for Philadelphia last year, including a six-hitter at Yankee Stadium when he struck out 10 and gave up only an unearned run. New York won the other four games.
The Yankees avoid facing Lee twice only if this series ends in fewer than seven games. Lee is 6-1 in his last eight starts against them, postseason included.
For Game 1 of this series, Lee's biggest impact will be his influence on Wilson.
"I'm not a guy that pushes a bunch of information on anybody, but he's definitely a guy that knows how to pitch," Lee said. "We've shared information, ideas on how to pitch guys, what to do with certain things."
Wilson pitched 204 innings and his 15 wins were the most on the staff. He held left-handed batters to a major-league-low .176 slugging percentage.
"He's always had great stuff," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. "The difference now is his confidence."
While Wilson's record and ERA were virtually identically in 17 starts before and 16 after Lee arrived, his strikeouts increased and his walks decreased.
"What Cliff has done for C.J. is make him understand if you have good stuff, throw it in the strike zone and good things will happen more often than not," Texas manager Ron Washington said. "He's starting to throw more pitches over the plate, he's starting to trust himself more."