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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Getting Rangers over cliff might keep Lee in Texas

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- Cliff Lee's mere presence in a Rangers uniform gives them a chance in this American League Championship Series.

We know that. We've heard that. It's all anyone has been talking about all week, or at least since Lee's Game 5 win over the Rays allowing the Rangers to get this far. He's not going to start against the Yankees until Game 3, but he still might have been the most talked-about player on either team at Thursday's pre-series workouts.

But as much as Cliff Lee could impact this ALCS, what's almost as interesting is how this ALCS could affect Cliff Lee.

As much as Lee seems to give the Rangers a chance to upset the Yankees this coming week, the ALCS -- if the Rangers win it -- could give Texas a chance to upset the Yankees in the Cliff Lee free-agent derby this winter.

It might not be a great chance. The Yankees have more money than anyone, and when there's a player they want, history says they'll get him. They'll obviously want Lee.

"You have a real good idea that the Yankees are going to go hard after him," Yankees starter Andy Pettitte said.

Knowing that, and knowing how free agency usually works when the Yankees are involved, one Rangers official estimated this week that his team's chances of retaining Lee are about 30 percent.

But here's how that could change:

Let's say the Rangers beat the Yankees in this series. Let's say they go on to win the World Series. At that point, will Lee (who never wanted to leave the Phillies after going to the World Series with them last year) want to leave? At that point, would the Rangers' new owners be more motivated than ever to make sure he doesn't leave?

Already, Lee seems to be developing feelings about his Rangers teammates somewhat similar to those he had for his Phillies teammates.

"I think everyone in the clubhouse wants him here, and I think he wants to be here," said second baseman Ian Kinsler, who has become close with Lee in the three months since the big trade with the Mariners. "He understands what type of organization we are and where we're at as an organization. We have a lot of prospects still coming, the team that we have right now is young, we have a great nucleus.

"He understands that. Hopefully he believes this is the place he wants to be."

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Players always seem to believe that more when they win. There are Angels people who believe that Paul Konerko would have signed with them after 2005, if only Konerko's White Sox hadn't won the World Series that October.

So if the Rangers beat the Yankees, and even more if they go on to win the World Series, it could become significantly harder for Lee to consider leaving. Lee even acknowledged as much, before the division series began.

"I definitely enjoy it here, and it looks like it's going to be a good team for years to come," he said. "And that's what I want to be part of. I want to be part of a winner, and that's what this team looks like it's going to be for a little while.

"Hopefully we do some damage here in the postseason, win the World Series, and that will make things a lot easier for me."

Now, can they win?

As good as Lee is -- his teams are 7-0 when he starts in the postseason -- he'll only pitch twice in the series. Actually, he'll only pitch a maximum of twice, because the second start only happens if there's a Game 7.

For all the focus on what he could do, if the Yankees win two games this weekend in Texas, his start in Monday's Game 3 doesn't sound nearly as pivotal.

But if the Rangers win even one of the two games at home, Monday's game starts feeling huge. So right from the start of the ALCS, even though they're opening the series on the road, the Yankees begin by feeling strong pressure to win.

"We need to win that game that CC [Sabathia] is pitching," catcher Jorge Posada said, turning the focus to Game 1.

None of this should be taken as meaning that the Yankees are conceding either of Lee's starts. For all Lee's success in the postseason, Pettitte (his Game 3 opponent) is the winningest postseason pitcher ever, with a 19-9 record. While Lee's teams have won all seven of his postseason starts, Pettitte's Yankees have won five of his last six.

And while Lee has a 6-1 record and 2.62 ERA in eight starts against the Yankees over the last three years (postseason included), they also remember that game in August when Lee's Rangers took a 6-1 lead, and the Yankees came back to win.

"He's not invincible," Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long said. "He's not some messiah who can't be beat."

That's true, but you can bet the Yankees would much rather have Lee pitching for them than against them this week. You can bet they'd rather have a four-man rotation that included Lee rather than the unreliable A.J. Burnett (even though general manager Brian Cashman said Thursday that Burnett "is capable of pitching as well as anyone in this series").

In July, the Yankees tried hard to acquire Lee, and at one point they believed they had a deal done with the Mariners. The deal fell through, for reasons that have been rehashed in the months since, and Lee instead became a Ranger.

The Rangers won that battle with the Yankees, and because they did, they have at least some chance to win this one.

And, if they win this one, they might significantly help their chances of winning the next one.

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