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Ibanez makes history with clutch hitting

Yankees veteran first in postseason history to not start and hit two homers
10/11/2012 1:14 AM ET
By Joe Auriemma / YESNetwork.com

Raul Ibanez watches his game-winning home run sail into the stands as the Yankees win in the 12th inning.(AP)

Game Three of the American League Division Series between the Yankees and Orioles will go down as an all-time classic, and it's all because of Raul Ibanez. The Yankees’ OF/DH has been clutch all season for the Yankees and has also been terrific in pinch-hitting situations. Before Game Three, Joe Girardi touched on how important Ibanez is coming off the bench in late situations.

“He's been a really big pinch‑hitter for us, and I like having that,” Girardi said. “That's not the reason I didn't start him.  It's just I looked at Chávie (Eric Chavez), and Raul's at‑bats were pretty good off this guy too, but Chávie's at‑bats were really good, so I decided to go that way, but it's nice to have that.”

When it looked as if all was lost, and the Yankees were going to go down 2-1 in the best-of-five series, Girardi made the gutsiest moves of his managerial tenure. With the Orioles’ near-invincible closer, Jim Johnson, on the mound, and with one out after an Ichiro Suzuki line-out to start the ninth, Girardi called upon Ibanez to pinch-hit for Alex Rodriguez.

Rodriguez, who was 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts in the series coming into that ninth inning, has been struggling mightily at the plate. Instead of sticking with the star player, Girardi took a risk and the gamble paid off. Ibanez blasted a game-tying solo home run, injecting life back into a Yankee Stadium crowd that was almost sure the team would go down in defeat.

“Well, Raul had to come through,” Girardi said. “Raul had some kind of day for us today, and you have to make some decisions sometimes that are tough decisions. But I just had a gut feeling. We talked about it in the pregame, about being a great pinch‑hitter, and you've got a left‑handed hitter who's a low-ball hitter in a sense, and you've got a low-ball pitcher. I just kind of had a gut feeling.”

“I assumed something was going on or something when I was told that I was hitting second,” Ibanez said. “I asked one of the guys, I think it was Nunez, and I asked who was hitting, and it was Alex, so I assumed something was going on. I didn't know. And then, I just tried to get ready to hit.”

Instead of A-Rod taking the news badly, he was the first player to high-five and greet Ibanez after the home run. When asked about being pulled from a pivotal postseason game in a big spot, Rodriguez replied, “Ten years ago, not sure how I would have reacted. I've matured. No one was happier for Raul than I was."

As if that wasn't enough, the Yankees and Orioles played tight, extra-inning baseball after that. The Orioles, who lost their first two extra-innings games of the season back in April to these Yankees, went on a tear, winning 16 straight games in bonus frames.

The bottom of the 12th came with Orioles lefty Brian Matusz on the mound. In the lefty-on-lefty matchup, Girardi stuck with his ninth-inning hero, and once again, it paid off. Ibanez quickly and forcefully drove the one pitch that he saw from Matusz and deposited it into the right-field stands, essentially playing the role of hero twice in a matter of three innings.

“Yeah, I was just trying to get a good pitch to hit,” Ibanez said after the game. “I don't even really remember what happened. It was kind of a blur what happened.  I think sometime down the line, I'll kind of remember it and recall it. But I think I was just trying to get a good pitch to hit, and fortunately, it worked out.”

 

 

With the game-tying and game-winning home runs, Ibanez became the first player in Major League history to hit two home runs in a postseason game with both coming in the ninth inning or later. He also has the distinction of being the first player in postseason history not to start a game and hit two home runs in that ballgame. This marked the 12th postseason walk-off home run in the history of the franchise.

Ibanez has been doing it all season for the Yankees. Of his 21 home runs in 2012, including the two he hit in Game Three, 11 of those home runs have come in the seventh inning or later.

“Yeah, you definitely try to draw on past experiences, past successes, and you try to have a short memory about past failures too,” Ibanez said of his late-inning success this season. “They can be helpful, but at the same time, each moment is different, and I'm just trying to stay in the moment and not think too far back and not think ahead at all -- just trying to think, just trying to focus on what my task is at that moment.”

Ibanez's presence on this team proves that even with a team filled with superstars, having role players is a key to success. It is a balancing act as manager to keep all of the egos in check, especially when one of these role players comes in to pinch-hit in a big spot. That is Girardi's toughest job. By doing what was right for the team and not sparing any feelings about what he thought, Girardi may have managed his best game in pinstripes. It was certainly a risk, but he and the Yankees are now reaping the rewards of a 2-1 series lead.

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