Joe Girardi's predecessor used to say Game 3 was the most important game in a best-of-seven series.
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"Obviously, the team that wins this game is going to have the lead, but it's not Game 7," Girardi said before American League Championship Series Game 3 between the Yankees and Rangers at Yankee Stadium. "I think it's real important especially if it's 2-0 or 0-2 either way. Because you either really put yourself in a hole or you really give yourself a cushion."
Girardi said the Game 3 from his career he remembers most vividly is from the 1996 World Series, when the Yankees, trailing two games to none after 12-1 and 4-0 losses at Yankee Stadium, headed to Atlanta. "Down 0-2, it was difficult," Girardi said. "Joe talked about let's just try and win a game and then we'll see where we're at."
Behind David Cone and Bernie Williams, who had an RBI single and two-run homer, the Yankees beat Tom Glavine and the Braves, 5-2, the first of their four straight victories to win the Series. "It gave us some great momentum," said Girardi, who tripled home Paul O'Neill and scored on Derek Jeter's single to help beat Greg Maddux, 3-2, in Game 6.
Though neither team was in a two-game hole this time, Game 3 wasn't insignificant. This was the 20th time in 41 ALCS that the series was even after two games. Of the previous 19 times, the team that won Game 3 went on to win the series 14 times. The only teams to win Game 3 of the ALCS with the series tied 1-1 and not advance were the 1977 Royals, 1986 Angels, 1995 Mariners, 1998 Indians and 2007 Indians.
The Yankees regarded the split in Texas as accomplishing what they needed, to take back home-field advantage. They certainly did not consider Game 3 a must-win situation. "We did exactly what we wanted to do," Nick Swisher said. "Now we're back home where we feel best. It's going to be a lot of fun."
Rangers starter Cliff Lee seemed to be having plenty of fun early in Game 3, holding the Yankees hitless for the first 42/3 innings and striking out five in a six-batter span during the first three innings. He struck out nine in the first five innings, giving up only a two-out walk to Mark Teixeira through four before Jorge Posada finally broke up the no-hitter with a broken-bat bloop single to right with two outs in the fifth.
Lee was staked to a 2-0 lead on Josh Hamilton's first-inning home run off Andy Pettitte, as Hamilton reached for a curveball and hooked it over the rightfield wall. He drove in Michael Young, who had concluded a nine-pitch at-bat with a single.
With one out in the sixth, after Young's third hit, Hamilton drove Swisher almost to the rightfield wall but fell just short of a second homer.
Brett Gardner singled to start the sixth and stole second, but Lee got Jeter, Swisher and Teixeira. He finished the seventh with 11 strikeouts and 109 pitches.
Jeter, who struck out twice in the first six innings, said he looks at every postseason game about the same. "You have to take the approach that every game is a big game," he said. "If you play every game like it's a Game 7, then you never have to change your approach. And we've been pretty good at that this year. We've been pretty good at that in years past. You don't get too high or too low. You try to maintain the same approach."
And that's regardless of the fact that every postseason result in New York gets treated as the ultimate event. After Game 1, the Yankees were headed for a sweep; after Game 2, they'd be lucky to win another game.
"Playing in New York, you understand that you win a game, you lose a game, and it's up and down," Jeter said. "But for us as players, we try to maintain that same approach regardless of what game we're playing.''
For Girardi, Game 3, in some ways, was the start of a new series. "Both teams really want to win this game," he said. "You know, it's a five-game series and we have got three of them at home. You'd like to start off by winning the first one at home."