NEW YORK – It was just after 11 p.m. here on Wednesday, and the euphoria that Raul Ibañez created by the power of two simple, yet precise swings, was still coursing though each part of the Yankees clubhouse.
In one corner, an overly hyper (if you can imagine) Nick Swisher and his beet-red face beamed, while he bestowed every platitude he could possibly produce per second. In another, Russell Martin (his face, red as well -- a theme, apparently) was the opposite of Swisher, barely able to put into words what he had just witnessed, a dreamy daze washed across his face.
What did Martin and the rest of his teammates witness? First, Ibañez, at age 40, pinch-hitting in the ninth inning for one of the best hitters in the game's history, Alex Rodriguez. Then they watched Ibañez take Orioles closer Jim Johnson deep, tying the game. And if that hadn't been enough, they then saw Ibañez take the first pitch from lefty Brian Matusz – one of the best weapons in Baltimore's strong bullpen this year – deep to right field for a 3-2 win in the 12th inning. That gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead in the American League Division Series and also put them one win away from advancing to the ALCS.
And in the interim, setting off pandemonium in the Bronx.
"I'm a very blessed man," said Ibañez, who became the first player in postseason history to hit two homers in the ninth inning or later.
While the Yankees celebrated, the loss for the Orioles was as rare as it was deflating; Baltimore had been 76-0 this season when leading after seven innings and had won 16 straight extra-inning games. Then Ibañez happened, and those streaks ended, while their odds of winning this series only sank.
The reaction in the clubhouse afterward was subdued. Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez, signed in spring training out of the Mexican League this winter, was dominating. He left the game after seven innings and had allowed just a run, striking out eight and walking none. His story – one of improbable ascent – was scripted perfectly. All the Orioles needed was Johnson, who had the most saves in the majors this year, to come in and lock down the ninth.
And it looked even better when Rodriguez – no matter his struggles this postseason (1-for-12, no homers or RBIs and with seven strikeouts) – was lifted with one out in the ninth.
"Maybe 10 years ago I react in a much different way," Rodriguez said.
Joe Girardi, who faced so much scrutiny leading up to Game 3 about whether he would drop Rodriguez in the lineup, stuck with him in the three-hole, and then took him out when the game was on the line. Girardi liked Ibañez's ability to be a low-ball hitter facing a low-ball pitcher. So he made the switch, and then was made to look like a genius.
"You know you're going to be asked a lot of questions if it doesn't work," he said.
Instead, it was the Orioles who had to answer for what went wrong. Adam Jones said he was surprised, in a sense, that Rodriguez was pulled. "That part caught me off guard," Jones said. "Pinch-hitting for a half a billionaire."
But Jones was also defiant that his team was not done in this series. His teammate, the rookie Gonzalez, was a bit more raw.
And perhaps because of his inexperience he wasn't able to conceal his emotions as well after the game. The first player to speak when the media entered the clubhouse, Gonzalez was front and center, and when asked what it was like to see both of those shots leave the yard, he was honest, blunt: "It broke my heart," he said.
And how could it not?
Ibañez again showcased his late-game heartbreaking skills. Even more impressive: the art of pinch-hitting. Many players in the league loathe it and are in awe of the players who do it consistently well. Ibañez has been nothing if not consistent over the last month, coming up with clutch hits as the Yankees battled for, and eventually won, the division.
When asked whether it was something learned through experience or just something innate, Ibañez – one of the most thoughtful players in the league – didn't have an answer. He said twice how good a question he thought it was, but didn't actually know how to evaluate it because he had never taken the time to do so. He said he'd get back to me.
"I'm just trying to focus on the moment," he said.
And it makes sense; all these years, he's just prepared and reacted. Perhaps the moment that crystallized just how revered Ibañez is and how much his teammates admire him and what he's able to still do, happened just after Ibañez got out of the shower.
He walked to his locker and started getting dressed. Ichiro was sitting in the next locker over, grooming his battered feet. He looked at Ibañez.
"Como lo hace?" Ichiro said, in Spanish. Translation: How do you do it?
Ibañez laughed and finished getting dressed. He slowly walked out into the hall, going through the messages on his cell phone. He entered the press conference room and sat down, awaiting a room full of questions about how he did what he just did.
"It was kind of a blur," he said.
Indeed. Maybe one day, he'll get back to us.