NEW YORK -- For a while, this lede went something like this:
Orioles pitcher Miguel Gonzalez is one of the best stories on a team of great stories, and here with barely 100 major league innings under his belt, he’s thrown seven innings of one-run ball against the New York Yankees, still one of the most powerful offenses in the majors. Have you even heard of Miguel Gonzalez if you’re not an AL East fan? Probably not. The Orioles noticed him when he was pitching in the Mexican Winter League. Incredible … and here we are talking about Alex Rodriguez again.
Then, for another while, it went along these lines:
How cool a story is Raul Ibanez? The guy’s been everywhere and did not seem, when this season started, to have much left. People, possibly including this writer, made jokes about how you might as well tape a glove to a stick and plant it in the outfield, for all the range he showed there. He hit .240/.308/.453 this season -- but quite a few of his 19 home runs came at crucial moments. Now here he is, after more or less saving the Yankees’ division title last week with a late-game home run against the Red Sox, and just a week after his fifth child was born, doing it again, with a stunning pinch-hit shot to tie the game at 2-2 … but pinch-hitting, jaw-droppingly, for Alex Rodriguez.
Alex Rodriguez, who has never once in his professional career been pinch-hit for, one of the greatest hitters in baseball history. Raul Ibanez pinch-hit for Alex Rodriguez. And so here we are, still talking about Alex Rodriguez.
Well, never mind. Everyone’s talking about Raul Ibanez now.
“IT’S EXCITEMENT OVERLOAD!” boomed a voice from the Yankee showers that turned out to belong to (of course) Nick Swisher, after Ibanez had come up for a second time and blasted a Brian Matusz cutter into the seats for a 3-2 win that gave the Yankees a 2-1 edge in the series.
“THAT WAS F***ING AWESOME,” said Swisher. “Sorry. … He goes jack city, and then he goes jack city again! It’s legendary … everyone just transformed into 12-year-olds.”
“Swish is always a 12-year-old,” said Mark Teixeira. “But yeah. That was really fun to watch.”
“It seemed like it was something out of a cartoon,” said Hiroki Kuroda, who pitched 8 1/3 great innings, smiling wider than when asked about his own performance. “It was unbelievable.”
Ibanez himself could not even bring himself to admit that he had pinch-hit for Alex Rodriguez. “I assumed something was going on or something, when I was told that I was hitting second,” he said. “And I asked one of the guys, I think it was Nunez, and I asked who was hitting, and it was Alex, so I assumed something was going on.” Of course something was going on -- he was pinch-hitting for Alex Rodriguez! -- but that was as close as Ibanez could or would come to saying as much. Even when asked directly if it was weird to pinch-hit for “one of the greatest hitters of all time,” he can only say again:
“I just thought something was going on.”
What he did say, many times, is that he was “just trying to get a good pitch to hit” and “not trying to do too much,” an old Ibanez refrain after success. It seems to work for him.
“I don’t even remember what happened,” he admitted when asked in more detail about his stunning, game-tying at-bat. “It was kind of a blur. But I think I was …” Wait for it … “… just trying to get a good pitch to hit.”
It became clear that Ibanez was not going to be much help here.
“You just have to go up there and try to get a good pitch to hit,” he continued.
Ibanez does not need to say anything else about his pair of homers, because they will be replayed several hundred times at least this month. He got those good pitches to hit from Jim Johnson and Brian Matusz, two of the brightest of the Orioles’ many bright spots this season. Still, one man in the ballpark maintained that he was not stunned.
“Stunned left me a while ago,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter.
Rodriguez was not the only superstar taken out of the game before it ended. Derek Jeter, clearly in pain with every swing after fouling a ball off his foot a few innings earlier, was also removed, replaced at short by the decidedly less legendary Jayson Nix. He is day-to-day, said he intended to play tomorrow, and then, as usual, would speak no more about it.
(“Derek, are you afraid this could swell up overn--” “NOPE.”)
As for Joe Girardi, the smartest or luckiest man in the ballpark or possibly both, he claimed that he went with a “gut feeling” when pinch-hitting Ibanez, which was not really going to cut it, before offering a more satisfying rationale: that Ibanez is “a great pinch-hitter” (which he had mentioned before the game, as well) and “a left-handed hitter who’s a low-ball hitter in a sense, and you’ve got a low-ball pitcher.”
That’s what he told Alex Rodriguez, who Girardi said took it well.
“You know you’re going to be asked a lot of questions if it doesn’t work,” Girardi said, and given how many questions he got when it did work, the mind boggles.
Those questions are valid, of course. Alex Rodriguez’ reputation as a postseason choker has never been fair or accurate. He had a lousy showing in the second half of the 2004 ALCS, the Yankees’ most humiliating loss, which has become a sort of metonymy for his whole career. But, as has been repeated and argued ad nauseum but with little effect, his postseason numbers are just fine, if unspectacular, at .271/.380/.484. He gets on base as often in October and has more power in that month than, just to pick a name at complete random, Derek Jeter.
So it was frustrating to see Girardi feed that “A-Rod can’t come through in the clutch” narrative, however well the move worked out for him. But the issue is not just that Rodriguez has hit poorly over the last three days, but how he has looked doing it: behind all the fast stuff and ahead of the slow stuff, either reacting poorly or guessing wrong.
Still. Raul Ibanez.
Rodriguez said all the right things: that it was all about the team, all about 25 guys, that he loved Joe Girardi, that he wanted to be a team leader and that there were different ways to do that, and that he was happy for Ibanez, “my guy from Miami.”
“Maybe 10 years ago I’d react differently,” said Rodriguez. Though, when asked if he was expecting it, he said: “Obviously not.” That makes two or 50,000 or several million of us.
But here we are talking about Alex Rodriguez again.
Let’s talk about Raul Ibanez instead. At least until tomorrow.