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Ibanez's heroics were key to Yankees' success

NEW YORK -- The audience at Yankee Stadium was thinning for the late innings of a postseason game, an unthinkable scene for anyone who witnessed the dynasty seasons, but perhaps understandable considering the more recent punchless showings by the home lineup.

Those caught in a flood of brake lights on the Major Deegan Expressway hadn't counted on Raul Ibanez's entry into the history books, and as they listened to John Sterling's bellowing radio call, they must have immediately regretted the decision to exit early.

"I don't even really remember what happened," Ibanez said on the evening of Oct. 10, appearing simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated as he recounted his stunning swings. "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."

He got two, and to properly tell this story, we need to flash back to earlier on that crisp night in the Bronx, with the Yankees trailing by a run in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Orioles.

Alex Rodriguez was due to bat against sinkerballing closer Jim Johnson, but after a terse dugout conversation with manager Joe Girardi, A-Rod planted himself on the bench and switched to a cheerleading role.

Ibanez, a 40-year-old veteran who joked in the spring that he was joining the Yanks only because they'd beaten his Phillies in the 2009 World Series, tightened the straps on his gloves and dug in. After looking at a pitch, he ripped Johnson's second offering over the auxiliary scoreboard in right field, tying the game and setting off a raucous party in the Bronx.

"I was just trying to get a good pitch to hit, not trying to do too much," Ibanez said. "Just trying to put a short swing on the first one, and it worked out. I was able to get a good pitch and hit it hard."

No one seemed to enjoy the blast more than A-Rod, who high-fived his teammates and hugged Ibanez on the dugout steps, silently hiding an injured left hip that would eventually be revealed to need surgery.

"Raul's my guy from Miami. Raul has been phenomenal," Rodriguez said that night. "The consensus was the same; we've never seen anything like that of that magnitude."

After the homer, Rodriguez pointed to Mariano Rivera on the railing. It was later revealed that Rivera had called Ibanez's shot.

"I did. I told Alex," Rivera said. "That's part of the game."

But even Rivera couldn't have predicted the finish. In the 12th inning, Ibanez answered the call and sent the Yankees home happy. Ibanez's blast on the first pitch from lefty Brian Matusz went even further than the first to give the Yanks a thrilling 3-2 victory.

"The second one, same thing, not trying to do too much," Ibanez said. "I think the tendency late in the game when the game is tied is, as players, we try to do a little too much. I was trying to fight that feeling, trying not to do too much, and fortunately it worked out."

Ibanez's flourish for the dramatic wasn't a complete shock: On Sept. 22 against the Athletics, Ibanez homered twice in a 14-inning Yankees win after starting the game on the bench, and on Oct. 2 against the Red Sox, he hit a ninth-inning homer to tie the game before connecting for the game-winning hit in extra frames.

"In baseball, there's no clock: we all know that," Mark Teixeira said. "And if you have a couple outs left, something magical can happen."

Girardi pushed the same button several more times during the postseason, with varying levels of success, and it turned out that Ibanez's big bat did have one more clutch blow to deliver.

Three days after rocking the Stadium's concrete, Ibanez helped fuel a rally that seemed even more improbable on Oct. 13, in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series.

The Yanks, in a sign of things to come, trailed by four runs heading to the ninth inning against Tigers closer Jose Valverde, but Ichiro Suzuki lined a two-run homer with Russell Martin aboard to halve the deficit.

Teixeira worked an eight-pitch walk from the struggling Valverde, and Ibanez dug for the second pitch he saw, blasting an arcing drive that forced right fielder Avisail Garcia to leap in vain.

"I'm just trying to help the team win any way I can," said Ibanez, who agreed to a one-year deal with the Mariners this week. "Guys had some great at-bats before that. Ichiro obviously hit the homer and Tex's at-bat was unbelievable, and Robbie Cano had a long at-bat and fouled off a bunch of pitches. They deserve a lot of credit for that, too."

Alas for the Yankees, their magic was about to run out. Derek Jeter's left ankle would shatter in pursuit of a ground ball three innings later and their season would be over within the week, a disappointing ending to a postseason run that held so much promise.

But while the Bombers and their fans may look back with regrets at the playoffs of 2012, anyone who was privy to the events of Oct. 10 and Oct. 13 walked out of Yankee Stadium knowing they'd witnessed something very special, thanks to Ibanez's three swings of the bat.

"Being a part of something like this -- this great team, and obviously all the legends that have come before you here -- it is an extraordinary feeling, and it is a great blessing," said Ibanez.

New York Yankees, Raul Ibanez