12:22 AM EDT, October 11, 2012
NEW YORK —
At 10:25 p.m. Wednesday, Joe Girardi became a genius. Either that, or like millions of other Yankee fans, he finally had seen enough of Alex Rodriguez. Maybe the bigger truth is Joe Girardi just couldn't take it anymore.
At 10:25 p.m., Girardi pulled one of the greatest hitters in the history of baseball — one who had been embarrassed by Orioles closer Jim Johnson two nights earlier, one who hasn't done squat in the post-season — and sent up Raul Ibanez to pinch hit with one out in the ninth inning.
At 10:25 p.m., either because of his inspiration or his exasperation, Girardi was rewarded. Ibanez's stunning home run into the right field seats not only tied Game 3 of the American League Division series, it may well have saved the Yankees 2012 season.
"Sometimes you've got to do what your gut tells you to do," Girardi said. "And my gut told me to make the move."
Forty-five minutes later, in the bottom of the 12th, Ibanez heard postseason fate knocking. Again. He answered. Again. Ibanez crushed a Brian Matusz pitch into the second deck in right field for a walkoff home run and a drama-packed 3-2 Yankees victory that pushed the Orioles to the brink of elimination in this five-game series.
Right-hander, left-hander, it didn't matter on this night. Ibanez, who has had a string of late-game heroics the past month, had walkoff hero written all over him.
"We do it together," said Ibanez, who was greeted with a big hug at the top of the dugout steps by A-Rod in the ninth. "It's about the Yankees. It's about winning."
In the third inning, Adam Jones had glided back on a towering Derek Jeter fly ball. As he glided, Jones blew a big pink gum bubble. The Orioles center fielder didn't seem to realize he was in trouble. By the time he did, Jeter's drive bounced up against the 385-foot sign and the Yankee captain had an RBI triple. As an enormous roar grew in the Bronx, it felt as if, yes, this was the moment the bubble finally popped on these upstart Orioles of Buck Showalter.
That didn't happen for six innings. That pop you heard were the synapses going off in Girardi's brain at 10:25. The Yankee manager usually goes by the book. That's why he's called Joe Binders, Binder Boy and Joey Looseleafs. Well, with the Orioles ahead 2-1, and two outs left, the numbers finally convinced him that A-Rod wasn't going to do anything except stir up a cool October breeze. The numbers also show Ibanez has become a pinch-hitter extraodinaire. He had walkoff homers against Oakland on Sept. 22 and the Red Sox on Oct. 2. In fact, when he had a game-tying homer in the ninth and had a walkoff RBI single in the 12th against the Red Sox, he became the first player in franchise history to such a thing. Well, he did one better on this night. He homered both times.
"I just went to A-Rod and said, 'You're scuffling a little bit right now,'" Girardi said. "We have a low ball hitter with a short-porch in right. I'm going to take a shot. A-Rod basically said do what you have to do."
A-Rod had been 0-for-3 in this game as a DH, with two strikeouts. He has gone 1-for-12, with seven strikouts in the postseason. Of his 30 swings, he has missed on nearly half of them.
It wouldn't be October, of course, if the A-Rod distress calls were not sounded like a five-alarm fire. It wouldn't be October if the calls to drop A-Rod down in the order weren't sounded all over New York. The man is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He also has had exactly one great postseason in pinstripes — when he carried the Yanks to the world title in 2009.
He was 2-for-18 in the 2011 postseason. He was 2-for-15 in 2005. He was 1-for-14 in 2006, the year Joe Torre dropped Rodriguez down to the eighth spot in the order against the Tigers. Torre regretted it. A-Rod never forgave him. You know the October history and so much of it isn't good for A-Rod.
So here we were again, only two games into this ALDS, columns and talk show hosts were blistering A-Rod. Others insisted it was a comical over-reaction. Girardi seemed to give at least some credence to the possibility of moving him down in the order Tuesday when he said, "I think that we're going to do whatever it takes to win this three-game series."
By 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, he had A-Rod hitting third in ink.
"I trust our guys," Girardi said. "I'm with [A-Rod] every day. It's important that they trust me.
"If they went up there every at-bat thinking, 'He's going to move me or he's going to take me out of the lineup,' that's a tough way to play."
And A-Rod? He just kept swinging and missing.
Athletes are creatures of habit. They aren't fond of surprises. Whenever you move a player, Girardi said, it not only affects that player it can affect an entire team. With a lineup built around protecting his left-handed hitters from certain matchups, moving one hitter can involve moving two, three or even four.
Fans are creatures of habit, too. A-Rod was given sympathy applause as he stepped to the plate in the first inning. The polite cheers would turn to lusty boos by the bottom of the fourth. Rodriguez gounded out in the first, but he swung right through a 91 mph fastball over the plate for a third strike in the fourth. Unable to check his swing, he struck out again in the sixth.
"In 2009, he was brilliant," Girardi said before the game. "So who's to say he's not going to be brilliant again? I mean, let's not make too much out of two games.
"Physically, he looks fine to me. Mentally, he looks fine to me."
At 10:25, however, he looked even finer to Girardi on the bench. And while more than a few Yankee fans had wanted to get the hot Ibanez into the starting lineup, Girardi said before the game he loved having that late-inning bullet coming off the bench. To be totally honest, however, Girardi inserted Eric Chavez and not Ibanez into the lineup because Chavez had been 3-for-6 lifetime against Miguel Gonzalez.
There had been some good reasons to keep A-Rod hitting third. Let him be the lightning rod. He lives with the pressure. Why throw it all on somebody else? Besides, the big moment in a game can find you anywhere in the lineup, as proven in Game 2 with No. 9 hitter Eduardo Nunez. And, hey, A-Rod did hit .302 out of the three spot this season.
Yet he also has not had a home run in his last 80 at-bats. He has become a singles hitter and if you're not even doing that, well, there also were plenty of reasons Girardi had seen enough of A-Rod.
"You have to make some decisions that are tough decisions," Girardi said.
By 10:25, either by inspiration or exasperation, Girardi was a genius.
By 11:10, Raul Ibanez was a hero.
By 11:11, Girardi was wondering what he'd do with his lineup the rest of October.
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