ARLINGTON, Texas -- The New York Yankees avoid Cliff Lee until Game 3 of the AL championship series. In the opener, they instead face another Texas 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 had to pitch a deciding Game 5 in the division series against Tampa Bay, Wilson starts Game 1 against New York and lefty CC Sabathia on Friday night at Rangers Ballpark.
Wilson already was making an impressive transition from reliever in his long-desired chance to be a Rangers 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. But after winning those games at Tampa Bay, the Rangers lost both at home and had to go back to Florida for the deciding game with Lee back on the mound Tuesday night.
Now that the Rangers have finally won a postseason series for the first time, they get to play New York, which has won 27 World Series titles and 40 pennants.
The Yankees, who haven't played since wrapping up a three-game sweep over Minnesota on Saturday night, 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 '99.
"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."
This is the first time the Rangers open a postseason series at home. They still have never won a playoff game at Rangers Ballpark, going 0-6 including the two losses last weekend to the Rays.
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, going 4-0 with a 1.16 ERA and two complete games in his past four starts in New York.
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. Definitely, it's not very often you see a guy go from the bullpen to the starting rotation and do the things he has. A lot of credit goes to his talents and just his stuff. He knows how to pitch."
Wilson was primarily a starter in the minor leagues and missed all of 2004 recovering from ligament transplant surgery.
After being called up by the Rangers for the first time in 2005, he was 0-5 with a 12.05 ERA in six starts. But in 18 appearances out of the bullpen his rookie season, he had a 2.73 ERA and Texas continued to utilize him as a reliever, even opening the 2008 season with him as the closer.
Nick Swisher saw Wilson as a reliever plenty when he was in the AL West with Oakland. Swisher said the big difference now is the left-hander is "more of a pitcher instead of a thrower" and is using his off-speed pitches.
"The ball's moving a lot more. He's throwing the cutter, the two-seamer," Swisher said. "Before it was just grip it and rip it. ... He's really, really learned a lot through the maturation process."
Wilson always wanted to be a starter again, and the Rangers gave the crafty and insightful lefty that chance during spring training this season.
"What he's done this year is really impressive," teammate Michael Young said.
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, his walks decreased and, more importantly, the former reliever didn't fade down the stretch as the innings piled up. He hadn't thrown more than 73 2-3 innings in a season since 2002 in the minors when he was a starter.
"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. "Recently, he's starting to throw more pitches over the plate, he's starting to trust himself more and he's starting to get quicker outs than he has in the past."
Wilson was 0-1 with a 5.65 ERA in three starts against the Yankees this season, including a rain-shortened, six-inning, complete-game loss in New York in his second start back in April. He threw 96 pitches in 5 1-3 innings in August against them, and 75 pitches in three innings in September. Texas won both those games in extra innings.
While he knows what has to change, Wilson isn't getting too specific about what he needs to do Friday night.
"The thing that hurt me in all three of the starts was just the high pitch count from walks and stuff like that, falling behind in the count," he said. "I feel weird about answering questions about what I'm going to try to do. I keep saying it's proprietary technology."