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Guerrero made the Yankees pay

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / October 24, 2010

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ARLINGTON, Texas — Vladimir Guerrero’s legs have slowed. His ability to run the bases and play the outfield is mostly gone, the result of knees that have betrayed him.

And yet the bat, which seems to swing at everything without regard for balls and strikes, can still mash.

That’s why it was curious that Yankees manager Joe Girardi intentionally walked Texas’s No. 3 hitter, Josh Hamilton, time after time.

Because behind him was Guerrero, the 35-year-old designated hitter with a bat that can still do damage. That was proven most notably in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series when the Yankees chose to walk Hamilton three times.

That included the crucial fifth inning, when Hamilton was put on first with two outs and a man on third. Guerrero, with a ringing double to center field, made the Yankees pay, driving in the winning runs in the Rangers’ series-clinching 6-1 victory Friday night.

“Vlad Guerrero is no walk in the park, that’s for sure,’’ Girardi said. “And we know how good of a hitter he is, and that’s why you talk about, well, why don’t you just walk this guy? Well, their lineup is complete, and that’s what makes it so hard.’’

On a team with an impressive offense, Guerrero stood out for the first half of the season. As late as June 30, he had a .339 average with a .962 OPS, 18 home runs, and 68 RBIs. And though he tailed off a bit as the season went on, he still finished with a .300 average, .841 OPS, 29 homers, and 115 RBIs, making him an impressive addition to an offense already stacked.

An inexpensive one, too. Guerrero signed with the Rangers in the offseason for $6.5 million for one year, after spending the last six years with the Angels. He was not expected to be the biggest bat, not with Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Michael Young in the lineup.

Still, knowing that Guerrero’s skills were declining enough that the Angels decided to go in a different direction, the Rangers went after him and were rewarded with an All-Star performance.

Guerrero had a fruitful six-year career with the Angels, after leaving the Expos in free agency in 2004, but there was one thing that he could never accomplish until arriving in Texas. As many times as Guerrero got to the postseason with Los Angeles, he never got to the World Series. This will be his first chance on the ultimate stage.

And though he wasn’t perfect at the plate in the ALCS, with seven hits in the six games, he came through when needed. When the Yankees baited him to get it done, he got it done. Prior to that double in the fifth, he had only one extra-base hit in the series to that point.

As Rangers manager Ron Washington had said early in the series, “We know [Hamilton and Guerrero] are the guys that do the big producing, there’s no doubt about it. But if they are not, that doesn’t mean we have to lose, and that’s our mind-set.’’

While Hamilton had turned that around, Guerrero was not a topic of conversation in the days leading up to Game 6. Instead the focus was on other pieces in the batting order, the hitting streaks of Elvis Andrus and Cruz, and the mammoth games by Hamilton. It was not on the team’s DH, who nevertheless sat at No. 4 in the batting order, waiting for his chance.

While the Rangers didn’t need him to take their first three wins in the ALCS, they needed him eventually. When Guerrero is hitting the way he can, Texas’s lineup looks even more dynamic and frightening.

“He’s meant everything to my club,’’ Washington said. “He’s brought presence. He’s brought experience. That was just a matter of time before one of those pitches ended up in the wrong spot, and Vlad was able to do what he did. He’s done that his whole career.

“He was struggling, but you keep going to the well, finally, you come through.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmalieBenjamin.

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