Through eight innings in Game 3 of the ALDS between the Yankees and the Orioles, the No. 3 hitter in the New York batting order had produced more boos than base hits. From the ninth inning on, however, the crowd was making a different type of noise after that spot in the order came around.
Although this one could have been mistaken by the uninitiated for more Bronx Cheers, it was entirely different. The fans at Yankee Stadium weren't booing any longer. No sir, they were screaming "Rah-ooooooooool" because pinch-hitter Raul Ibanez hit a pair of solo home runs to lift the Yankees to a stirring 3-2 win in 12 innings.
With his team trailing the Orioles, 2-1, in the bottom of the ninth, Yankees manager Joe Girardi pulled the struggling Alex Rodriguez in favor of the 40-year-old Ibanez. He validated the move with a game-tying home run off Baltimore closer Jim Johnson in the ninth inning and later a walk-off winner off Brian Matusz in the 12th. This his was the first time that a pinch-hitter had ever been used for Rodriguez in the postseason, per STATS LLC.
"Raul had to come through. Raul had some kind of day for us today," Girardi told reporters during his postgame press conference. "You have to make some decisions sometimes that are tough decisions. But I just had a gut feeling."
Before Game 3, Girardi had been preaching consistency and cautioning against "knee-jerk" reactions when it came to Rodriguez' spot in his lineup. Despite calls for a change, he left Rodriguez as his No. 3 hitter. The three-time AL MVP grounded out to shortstop in his first at-bat against O's starter Miguel Gonzalez. After watching him strike out in his next two trips, Girardi finally felt -- in his gut, apparently -- that it was time to make a move. Given his penchant for trusting his binder more than his gut in many cases, it's possible that A-Rod's 3-for-18 lifetime numbers against Johnson (via Baseball-Reference) were a factor in the decision. Regardless of the reasoning behind the move, Ibanez was among those caught by surprise.
"I asked who was hitting, who I was hitting for. I asked one of the guys in the [batting] cage because I was getting ready. And they said it was Alex's spot. So, I was definitely surprised," Ibanez told Michael Kay of the YES Network on the field after game. "Then I had to try to put all that behind me and have a good at-bat."
After Ichiro grounded out to lead off the home ninth, Ibanez dug in to face Baltimore's closer. After seeing just one pitch from Johnson, a ball, Ibanez roped a 94-mph fast ball into the short porch in right field. Tie game. Free baseball.
As the game continued into the 12th inning, Ibanez came to the plate again. And, again, he came through while baseball's highest paid player watched from the dugout. Ibanez, who has come up big for the Yankees in key spots in recent weeks, jumped on the first pitch he saw from Matusz and the celebration began.
Not surprisingly, there was one common thread amongst the majority of questions posed to Girardi when he appeared before the media shortly after the game.
"I just went to him and I said, 'You know, you're scuffling a little bit right now. We got a low-ball hitter and we got a shorter porch in right field than left field, obviously. Raul's been a good pinch-hitter for us. I'm just going to take a shot,'" Girardi recounted for reporters when asked about his conversation with Rodriguez in the ninth.
Ultimately, Girardi's one shot produced two memorable ones off Ibanez' bat and propelled the Yankees into a 3-games-to-2 lead in the best-of-five series. To hear Rodriguez tell it, "there was no one happier" about the way things worked out, even if the same might not have been true earlier in his career.
"We preached all year that it's about 25 guys. It's about whatever it takes to win," Rodriguez told reporters at his locker after the win. "I gotta 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 -- that I've matured a lot over the last few years. There was no one happier than me. It was just an awesome moment and a big game for us."