It was bold, gutsy and daring. When Joe Girardi decided to use Raul Ibanez as a pinch-hitter for Alex Rodriguez in the ninth inning on Wednesday night, it was one of the more delicate decisions he has made as a manager. It was also one of the smartest decisions he has made.
Even before Ibanez drilled a game-tying homer off Jim Johnson and a game-winning homer off Brian Matusz in the 12th inning, inserting Ibanez for Rodriguez was the proper move. Even if Ibanez had made an out and the Yankees had lost to the Orioles, I believe Girardi did the right thing. The manager’s job is to give his team the best chance to win. That’s what Girardi did.
Because Ibanez had a dream of a postseason game, the Yankees defeated the Orioles, 3-2, in Game 3 of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium. The Yankees need to win one of the next two home games to advance to the A.L. Championship Series. If not for Ibanez, the Yankees would be facing elimination in Game 4 on Thursday night. If not for Girardi’s decision, Ibanez never would have batted in the ninth.
“I just had a gut feeling,” Girardi said.
It wasn’t easy for Girardi to simply go with his gut. This isn’t Strat-O-Matic where the manager replaces one player card for another. This was Girardi telling a player who has won three Most Valuable Player Awards and has 647 homers that he preferred the 40-year old who had been sitting in the dugout for eight innings.
While Girardi explained how Ibanez was a low-ball hitter who could shoot for the right field fence against Johnson, a low-ball pitcher, his initial words to Rodriguez were, “You’re scuffling.” If Rodriguez was right, Girardi would have never considered replacing him. But Rodriguez isn’t right. He is 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts, a proud hitter who can’t catch up with fastballs and who has turned into a guess hitter. So Rodriguez was told to put his bat in the rack and become a spectator, the rarest of demotions for such an accomplished player.
“It’s about 25 guys,” Rodriguez said. “It’s about whatever it takes to win.”
Once Ibanez was told he would be pinch-hitting, he took swings in the batting cage behind the first base dugout. As patient as Ibanez is, he becomes more aggressive in late-inning situations. I think Ibanez outwits pitchers. Since the scouting report is that Ibanez will take pitches, I think he intentionally changes his approach to try and attack early in the count.
On a 1-0 count, Johnson, who didn’t want to fall behind 2-0 while protecting a one-run lead, threw a two-seam fastball that ran across the middle of the plate. Ibanez clubbed it into the right field seats. Rodriguez, who admitted that he became a cheerleader, gave Ibanez a two-handed high five near the dugout. It was a signature moment for Ibanez and Rodriguez, but for much different reasons.
After Ibanez’s amazing homer, the next eight Yankees were retired. Then Ibanez loped to the plate in the 12th. Ibanez had hit .197 with no homers in 61 at-bats off left-handed pitchers, but, once again, he was in attack mode. When Matusz unleashed a first-pitch fastball that was up in the zone, Ibanez pounced again and hammered it into the second deck in right. In two at-bats, he saw three pitches and hit two homers. It was a night where Ibanez reserved a cool spot in Yankee postseason discussions.
“It was kind of a blur what happened,” Ibanez said. “I think sometime down the line I’ll kind of remember it and recall it.”
After the dramatic victory, Girardi was asked how his decision to bench an iconic player could impact his relationship with Rodriguez. Those are interesting questions, but not for Wednesday. During the postseason, there’s no time for wounded feelings. Rodriguez was correct when he said it is about the team and that he was happier than anyone for Ibanez. If Rodriguez uttered anything that was selfish, he would have looked foolish. The manager made a decision. It worked. Everyone should move forward.
Will everything be copasetic on the Yankees? Rodriguez never forgave Joe Torre for batting him eighth in a 2006 postseason game. But, again, there’s no time and no need for Rodriguez to review that history. The Yankees are trying to win a title. What Girardi did, as bold, daring and gutsy a move as he’s ever made, worked and the Yankees won. That’s what matters. That’s all that matters.
Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES