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Rangers aren't sitting on their AL throne without Young

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Rangers didn't need Cliff Lee to get back to the World Series.

They did need Michael Young.

They weren't severely damaged on that night in December, when Lee turned down their millions to sign with the Phillies. But they may well have been saved on those days in February, when they didn't trade Young.

The Rangers without Lee are American League champions, just as they were with him. The Rangers without Young just wouldn't be the same.

The Rangers don't get past the tough Tigers in the AL Championship Series without their deep and talented bullpen, and they don't win without Nelson Cruz's power. But if Saturday night's clinching Game 6 rout reminded us that this team can still score plenty of runs, it also showed us that Michael Young is still more often than not in the middle of it.

ALCS: Tigers at Rangers
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Nine runs in an inning? Yeah, that's the Rangers.

Two doubles that were the two biggest hits in that inning, and a five-RBI night to lead a 15-5 win? Yeah, that's Michael Young.

"If we go into any game and you ask who's going to get the big hit, I'm always going to say Michael Young," said Tom Grieve, the one-time Rangers general manager and longtime television analyst. "You'd like to say, 'Wow, what a surprise.' But it's not."

The Rangers are no surprise, or at least they shouldn't be.

Yes, too many of us spent the winter getting far too excited about the Phillies rotation or the Red Sox lineup. We put far too much emphasis on the Phillies signing Lee, or on the Red Sox trading for Adrian Gonzalez and signing Carl Crawford.

And we spent far too little time appreciating what the defending AL champs were doing.

Instead of panicking after they lost Lee and acquiring a lesser starter, they improved their defense and strengthened their lineup by signing free-agent third baseman Adrian Beltre. And after initially trying to trade Young, the incumbent third baseman, they made the much-better decision to keep him and work things out.

It's hard to forget how unhappy Young looked that day he reported to spring training. But even then, it was easy to understand that the Rangers with Young would be better than the Rangers without him.

He ended up as their leading hitter. He drove in more runs than anyone else in the lineup. If any Ranger belonged high on the AL Most Valuable Player ballot, it was Young.

I'm still not sure whether this Ranger team is better than last year's Ranger team -- "I'll tell you in about two weeks," general manager Jon Daniels said -- but I think it probably is.

I know it's a better team with Young on it.

It's easy to say now, but the Rangers were a better team than the Red Sox or Yankees, too. In the end, they were definitely the better of the two teams in this ALCS, too, although the Tigers will certainly wonder how things would have gone had they had better health.

Even with health, the Tigers couldn't match the depth of the Ranger bullpen, which dominated the series by allowing just four runs in 27 1/3 innings (for a 1.32 ERA), making up for a rotation that averaged less than five innings a game, with a 6.59 ERA.

Cruz, who deservedly won series MVP honors, hit six home runs, including two big ones in extra innings. But until the final game, the Ranger offense was providing just enough to win.

"We were kind of due for a team offensive explosion," Young said.

He was due, too, coming into Saturday with a .162 postseason batting average and just two RBI.

Manager Ron Washington resisted calls to drop Young out of the cleanup spot, showing the loyalty and faith that best characterizes his style of leadership. Washington has played a huge part in turning around the image of the Rangers, but he has done it hand-in-hand with Young.

"I believe in Wash," Young said in the middle of Saturday's celebration. "He believes in me."

This spring, it was up to Washington to fit Young into his new role as a sometimes designated hitter, sometimes first baseman and sometimes whatever was needed. Washington made sure it worked, as did Young.

"We were in a situation this spring that no one wanted to be in," Daniels said. "But the big thing was we knew Michael as a person. When he said he was going to put it behind him, and that it wouldn't have any impact on the team, I really didn't have any doubt about it."

One thing Young did: He welcomed Beltre to the team, making it clear that he didn't blame him for the situation.

"A class act like Michael, he's a guy who makes you comfortable," Beltre said. "He talked to me before he talked to the team, and he told me he had no problem with me. He let me know I was welcome."

Eight months later, it's easy to look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. It's easy to look at the Rangers and say that they deserved to be looked at all along as the class of the American League.

Their starting rotation was good enough all year, even without Lee. Their trade-reinforced bullpen has been great through two rounds of October baseball, showing that dominant starting pitching isn't nearly as crucial as we all thought.

Their lineup works, and their system works.

And yes, Michael Young is in the middle of it, back with the Rangers.

Back in the World Series.

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