NEW YORK -- Raul Ibañez emerged from the home team dugout at Yankee Stadium around 10:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday night, tasked with taking the place of a Yankee legend. He could have had no way of knowing he was about to become one himself.
Perhaps only the select members of one of the smallest fraternities in sports -- immortal Yankees -- can sense when one is about to join their ranks. And maybe that's why as Ibañez strode toward home plate to pinch-hit for Alex Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth inning with the Yankees two outs from a 2-1 loss, Mariano Rivera turned to the displaced A-Rod and said, "Tie game."
Such a prediction would seem outlandish if not for the fact that Rivera, the all-time saves leader and the greatest postseason closer of all time, knows a little something about October magic. Ibañez had certainly been doing his part to inspire such confidence, turning in a series of almost unbelievable performances in recent weeks, each more amazing than the last. On Sept. 22, he came off the bench and went 3-for-4 with two homers, including a two-run shot to tie the game in the 13th inning against the A's. On Oct. 2, he hit a pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game against the Red Sox and then delivered the walk-off single in the 12th that kept the Yankees alone in first place in the AL East.
On Wednesday, Ibañez topped them all with one swing. Well, two swings actually that, in the words of Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher, "looked absolutely identical. They were both rockets." The first connected with a Jim Johnson fastball with one out in the ninth inning and sent it screaming into the seats in right field to tie the game at 2. The second came to start the 12th inning, against Brian Matusz, and landed in the second deck of the right field stands to become a walk-off home run that gave the Yankees a 3-2 victory and a 2-1 series lead.
"Being a part of something like this, all the legends that have come before you here is an extraordinary feeling, and it's a great blessing," said Ibañez.
For one night at least, Ibañez cemented his own place among those legends, and not just because he is the first person in postseason history to hit two home runs in a game that he didn't start and the first to hit a game-tying home run in the ninth and an extra-inning home run. And not just because this was the third time he had hit a game-tying home run in the ninth inning or later in just three weeks. And not even because he gave the new Stadium, now in its fourth year, the kind of unforgettable, unexpected and electric October moment that for so many decades defined its departed neighbor across the street.
No, Ibañez earned his pinstriped pedigree because he did no less than rescue a Yankees team that, until his entrance, looked defeated, and perhaps not just for this game. After a lifeless 3-2 loss in Game 2, New York looked no more healthy in Game 3. Through eight innings, it had scraped together a mere five hits and a single run, that coming courtesy of Derek Jeter, who hit an RBI tripe in the third inning but fouled a pitch off his foot in his next at-bat and left the game after eight innings.
A loss would have pushed the Yankees to the brink of elimination and facing the prospect of having to win two straight against an opponent that has not only outscored them this season, and would have beaten them seven times in 10 games in the Bronx, but that would have just won its 17th straight extra-inning game, a bit of magic that even the Yankees have never matched.
Instead, Ibañez all but single-handedly sent the Orioles to their first overtime loss since the Yankees beat them in consecutive extra-inning games on April 10 and 11 and breathed new life into his team.
"When that ball hit his bat, I turned and looked [around the dugout] and everybody looked like a 12-year-old," said Swisher, who greeted Ibañez in the dugout by telling him, "I am so f------ proud of you!"
Swisher was still amped up after the game. "Wooh!" he shouted as he headed toward the showers. "Now that's exciting! I'm on excitement overload!"
He wasn't alone.
"I can't explain how cool that was," said backup catcher Chris Stewart. "You sit back and say there's no way he's gonna do it again and he does it again. I can't imagine how he feels. I'm flying off the wall right now and he's the one who hit it."
Ibañez's home run was so momentous that it even managed to obscure the fact, temporarily, that to do it he had to do something no one had ever done before: pinch-hit for Alex Rodriguez in a postseason game. Asked the last time he had been lifted in a game situation like this one, a stoic A-Rod laughed and said, "High school."
That's appropriate, because there have been times during this series when Rodriguez has looked as overmatched as a teenager against the Orioles' pitching. After going 0-for-3 in his first three at-bats with two strikeouts, he is now 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts in the three games and had been unable to catch up to the hard fastballs he was repeatedly seeing. Yankees manager Joe Giardi said he began planning the move in the seventh inning and that it was a gut decision, but it was so stunning that even Ibañez was taken aback when he realized he was being asked to hit for a man who has 647 career home runs and 2,901 hits.
Girardi would not commit to what he will do with A-Rod in Game 4, though Rodriguez said he "100 percent" expected to be in the starting lineup.
Rodriguez isn't the only question mark for Game 4. Jeter has a bone bruise on his foot and while he's vowing to play, Girardi did not know for sure if he'd be able to count on the man who, outside of Ibañez, has been his only reliable offensive player in this series. Nor did Girardi know if Ibañez would get the start rather than keep him in reserve in hopes he can offer another chapter in his remarkable late-season story. Then there is Phil Hughes, the inconsistent righty who will start Game 4 but has a lifetime postseason ERA of 5.40, and the fact that the Orioles have proved every bit the Yankees' equals this season during 21 back-and-forth games.
All of that could wait, however. For a franchise that is always about winning today and being in position to win tomorrow, the Yankees never tire of remembering their wins from yesterday. Ibañez's heroics now take their place alongside the franchise's great home run moments of postseasons past, and recalled one in particular.
In 2003, Aaron Boone was a new Yankee who had not yet experienced what so many of his teammates had. That, as Derek Jeter would tell him before he hit a home run that ranks among the most famous in baseball history, sooner or later, the ghosts always come out at Yankee Stadium.
Whatever success the Yankees have had in their new palace had not been about the supernatural but about super talent, super resources and super effort. On Wednesday night, the ghosts came back. They came for Ibañez, the newest Yankee legend, and carried him straight into a place where moments like these live forever.