- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
NEW YORK -- Late in spring training, when there was speculation among scouts that Raul Ibanez would be released by the New York Yankees because his bat speed was gone for good, he stood at the railing while the Boston Red Sox took batting practice in Ft. Myers, looking for answers.
The hitter he watched in the cage was Adrian Gonzalez, then with Boston, and what Ibanez wanted to see was Gonzalez's fluid, effortless, perfectly timed swing. Ibanez is a swing mechanic, deeply entrenched in a daily effort to figure out how to make it work. All spring, Ibanez thought, his trouble was that in an effort to catch up to fastballs, he was lurching at the ball; because he was trying to go faster, his swing was slower. He had lost the fluidity of his own swing, the timing, and he was hitting nothing but little infield rollers.
Now, if Ibanez ever needs an example of a smooth swing, he can always run back video of his ninth-inning home run from Wednesday's Game 3 of the ALDS, which tied the score, or his first-pitch home run leading off the bottom of the 12th inning, which won the game.
Just seconds after he touched home plate amid a mob of teammates, Ibanez couldn't remember his trip around the bases -- it was all a blur -- and he was still struggling to catch his breath, still struggling to process everything that he experienced in those moments and this season. He has cherished this season, the opportunity to play on a really good team with teammates he likes. He has found a comfort zone, as an aging former star who is no longer assured of being in the lineup every day.
This is the same transition that Alex Rodriguez seems to have made Wednesday night, the Rubicon he has crossed, after his manager executed a necessary and excruciating move, like someone breaking the safety glass on a fire alarm.
Rodriguez is 37 years old, and he will never be the same pre-eminent player he once was. He has not been able to hit fastballs he used to crush, and against some right-handers he has looked helpless, unable to drive the ball unless he correctly guesses what the pitcher is going to throw. The days of Rodriguez having such bat speed that he could wait and wait and wait and still drive the ball 450 feet are over.
In the first 25 innings of this series, Rodriguez was 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts, which is why the idea of pinch-hitting for him was in the front of Joe Girardi's brain in the seventh inning of Game 3. Girardi knew the Baltimore Orioles would be calling on right-handed sinkerballer Jim Johnson, he of the filthy fastball, and he knew that Ibanez was much better suited for this matchup, as a left-handed lowball hitter.
So Girardi made the decision and presented it to Rodriguez, who reacted perfectly, within the realm of a group of people trying to accomplish something together. He encouraged Girardi to do what he felt he needed to do and then he went right to the railing at the front of the dugout to root for his teammate, and after Ibanez clubbed his home run, Rodriguez made it a point to be the first guy to greet Ibanez with a hug.
Rodriguez rushed around on the field after Ibanez ended the game. Afterwards, Rodriguez gave strong praise for Ibanez and Girardi, whose motives he clearly trusts in a way that he did not trust Joe Torre six years ago. And Rodriguez acknowledged that 10 years ago, he might not have reacted as maturely as he did Wednesday night.
Rodriguez's situation is much like it was for Cal Ripken after his consecutive-game streak ended: Now that the Big Move has been made -- pinch-hitting for a Hall of Fame-caliber player -- the pressure will be off Rodriguez and his manager. If Girardi feels there is a better matchup than Rodriguez, like Eric Chavez, then he will go to it. If he feels Rodriguez needs to be benched, he can do it and will do it.
Now Rodriguez is like his friend Ibanez: an aging former star who will be at the top rail of the dugout looking for a way he can get better, to help his team in any way he can in whatever role that is provided for him. He will presumably be in the lineup today, against left-hander Joe Saunders, and as Ibanez demonstrated in Game 3, those supporting-cast roles can turn into the moments of a lifetime.
Shortly after Rodriguez spoke to reporters, Derek Jeter walked into the clubhouse to speak with reporters, bearing a slight limp, and said of Game 4 tonight: "I will play." Girardi announced that Jeter suffered a bone bruise after fouling the ball off his left foot in the early innings, and he knows that the shortstop will arrive at the park today assuming he will play.
But Jeter was really hobbled for most of Game 3, struggling to run, struggling to move at his position. Jeter finished the 2001 World Series with a broken foot and other injuries, and it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone if Jeter's injury turns out to be a little more serious than what the Yankees have revealed to this point.
And it shouldn't be a surprise if Jeter is in the lineup as the DH tonight, with either Jayson Nix or Eduardo Nunez playing shortstop, or if he were out of the lineup altogether. Girardi will make that decision this afternoon.
From Elias and ESPN Stats & Info:
• Ibanez is the second player in Yankees history with two HRs, including a walk-off, in a postseason game (Chad Curtis, 1999 WS vs. Braves)
• Ibanez is the first Yankee to hit a game-tying HR in the ninth inning or later since Rodriguez, who had two in 2009 -- one in Game 2 of the LDS and one in Game 2 of the LCS.
• Ibanez is the first player in postseason history with a homer in the ninth inning and a homer in extra innings in the same game.
• Rodriguez had never been pinch-hit for in a postseason game. A-Rod was pinch-hit for once this season (Melky Mesa on Oct 1).
• Ibanez is the oldest player with a postseason walk-off homer in MLB history (40 years old)
As Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Info notes, the Orioles aren't used to allowing late-inning comebacks. The best regular-season records when leading after seven innings (since 1900):
2011 Tigers -- 77-0
1972 Pirates -- 75-0
2012 Orioles -- 74-0
1950 Giants -- 69-0
1919 White Sox -- 67-0
Justin Verlander's challenge today will be to get through the first innings efficiently, to settle in quickly, so that he has a chance to finish what he starts, because Jose Valverde may not have much left at all for Game 5.
From ESPN Stats & Info: The first three hits Valverde allowed in Game 4 were with his fastball, and the pitch averaged 91.5 mph, his second-lowest velocity of the season. All three hits came on fastballs 92 mph or slower. On the year, opponents are hitting .381 against his fastball when it's thrown at 92 mph or slower and .208 when it's thrown 93 mph or faster.
The Tigers blew it, and now they've got Verlander throwing in Game 5. Alex Avila says players are trained to get past disappointments like Game 4. The Tigers know they have a good shot, writes Bob Wojnowski.
When Raul Ibanez pinch-hit for the Alex Rodriguez in Game 3 of the ALDS, it signified the start of something new. As Buster Olney writes, the pressure is off A-Rod as he begins a new role with the Yankees.