Alex who? Raul pinch-hits into legend

Raul Ibanez moves into Yankee legend with homers in 9th, 12th to stun Orioles in Game 3 of ALDS

In the aftermath of a spellbinding October night that recalled Reggie, Tino and Brosius, the Yankees’ clubhouse hummed with electricity like the B train’s third rail.

While the victors tried to make sense of what had transpired — “EXCITEMENT OVERLOAD!” Nick Swisher shouted from the next room — the man of the hour moved about quietly.

Raul Ibanez, who on Wednesday night became a postseason hero in a way no man had before, brought to his locker a memento of the latest chapter in franchise folklore: the Yankees’ lineup card for Game 3 of the American League Division Series.

When the nine starters were written on it hours before, his name was not among them.

On the night he became a Yankees legend, Ibanez saw three pitches. He hit two home runs. The first, off formerly untouchable Baltimore closer Jim Johnson, tied the game with one out in the ninth. The second, on a 91-mph cutter from Brian Matusz, delivered a 3-2 walk-off victory in the 12th that gave the Yankees a 2-1 series lead and changed the course of their season.

Ibanez is the first player — ever — to hit two home runs in a postseason game when both were in the ninth inning or later. The folks from Cooperstown are going to call and ask for his bat.

And yet the place of those swings in posterity was eclipsed — partially … OK, maybe more than partially — by the narrative behind how he came to take them.

Ibanez, you see, was pinch-hitting for Alex Rodriguez.

Surprised to get the assignment? He absolutely was.

“Alex is one of the best hitters of all time — and he still is,” the gracious Ibanez said afterward. “I didn’t know what was happening.”

One decision and two swings later, our views of three men are transformed. No one can say Joe Girardi lacks backbone. No one can say Rodriguez remains an elite hitter. No one can say Ibanez is a mere role player on the wealthiest team in baseball.

First, Girardi. When was the last time a Yankees manager was this bold in handling a (former) superstar during the postseason? By removing A-Rod from the game entirely, Girardi acted even more audaciously than Joe Torre had in dropping him to eighth for Game 4 of the 2006 ALDS.

For comparable risk — to the team’s fate, to the star’s ego — one must go back to Billy Martin benching Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson, in the decisive game of the '77 ALCS.

In the preamble to Wednesday’s game, gallons of ink were bled over where A-Rod should hit in Girardi’s lineup — not if he would be given the chance to swing in the late innings.

Girardi ignored the critics and kept Rodriguez third, as he had in Games 1 and 2. But after A-Rod's 1-for-9 postseason became 1 for 12 — because of a staggering vulnerability to fastballs — Girardi made his move.

“I just had a gut feeling,” Girardi explained.

A political explanation, of course, and we all know why. In that moment, Girardi believed Ibanez gave him a better chance to do what is implored of every Yankees manager: win in October.

Girardi had plenty of evidence pointing toward that decision, including Ibanez’s pinch-hit homers in key late-season victories over Oakland and Boston. Acting on that was another matter entirely — especially considering the Yankees owe Rodriguez $118 million over the next five years, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

Girardi and Rodriguez said afterward that the decision won’t change their relationship. (“I love Joe,” A-Rod insisted.) But Rodriguez also glibly noted that he hadn’t been pinch-hit for (in a meaningful situation) since junior high — or maybe high school.

“Joe and I had a discussion,” Rodriguez told the throng of reporters and cameramen who waited for him afterward. “You know, we’ve preached all year: It’s about 25 guys. It’s about whatever it takes to win.

“I’ve got to be honest: I don’t know how I would have reacted to that 10 years ago. But I’ve said — and I know you guys don’t like to hear it — I’ve matured a lot over the last few years. There was no one happier than me. It was an awesome moment and a big game for us. … The consensus was the same: We’ve never seen anything of that magnitude.”

Perhaps not. But A-Rod came close three years ago, during the only rewarding October of his nine years in the Bronx. There were tying home runs off closers Joe Nathan and Brian Fuentes in the first two rounds of the playoffs on nights that felt awfully similar to this. In 15 postseason games, he batted .365 with 18 RBI.

That player is gone. During Wednesday’s defining moments, Rodriguez watched from the dugout wearing a gray sweatshirt. He leaned on the dugout rail beside a similarly inactive Mariano Rivera, who, it was later revealed, called Ibanez’s shot to A-Rod.

Derek Jeter was gone from the game by then, too, felled by a bone bruise on his left foot after eight innings.

The game’s final scene was telling in that way: Ibanez, the beloved 40-year-old, engulfed by pinstriped jerseys at home plate while Jeter, Rivera and Rodriguez celebrated in their hoodies. Jeter has been magnificent this year (and again in this series, with a .462 batting average), but it’s apparent that these Yankees must win differently than even the 2009 edition.

Rivera, 42, hasn’t pitched since April. Jeter is 38, A-Rod 37. Robinson Cano is the Yankees’ best player, but he’s yet to show that he can carry them through a postseason. Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson are maddeningly inconsistent. So, at least in this series, the winning formula has involved standout pitching (CC Sabathia in Game 1, Hiroki Kuroda in Game 3) and timely power from the likes of Russell Martin and Ibanez.

Ibanez was a brilliant signing by Yankees general manager Brian Cashman last offseason — with strong character, clubhouse leadership, a longing to win his first championship, and (at $1.1 million) considerably greater dollar-for-dollar value than the man he replaced Wednesday. Ibanez has helped give the Yankees the grit of an underdog, even though they aren’t one.

Ibanez reached the World Series once before, with the Phillies in 2009, but the Yankees denied him — thanks, in large part, to A-Rod’s heroics. Ibanez played on two more Philadelphia teams that were supposed to win it all and didn’t. But now he’s a Yankee, nine wins from the big ring, trying to make sense of a month in which the historic home runs were only the second- and third-best pieces of news — after the birth of his son, Luca.

“Being a part of something like this, this great team, and obviously all the legends that have come before you is an extraordinary feeling,” Ibanez said.

“It’s a great blessing. And then to be a part of something like that is definitely a special moment.”

Game 4 is Thursday. Baltimore’s pitcher will be a left-hander, Joe Saunders, so Ibanez’s name probably won’t be in this starting lineup, either. But he’ll be available to pinch-hit — perhaps for the man with 647 career home runs.
 

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