Often, Joe Girardi will turn to his color-coded binder to guide his decision-making process in the late innings.
With the Yankees closing in on a tough defeat and the brink of elimination, Girardi went to his gut to make a move to replace one of the greatest hitters in the game. He decided to have Raul Ibanez pinch hit for Alex Rodriguez.
The move paid off in a big way as not only did Ibanez hit a one-out solo home run in the ninth off Jim Johnson, he did it again in the 12th by hitting the first pitch into the right-field second deck off Brian Matusz, giving the Yankees a dramatic 3-2 victory and putting them on the brink of advancing to the ALCS.
“We talked about it in the pregame, about being a great pinch-hitter, and you’ve got a left-handed hitter who’s a low-ball hitter in a sense and you’ve got a low-ball pitcher,” Girardi said. “I just kind of had a gut feeling.”
Girardi began planning for the move in the seventh inning. At that point Rodriguez had been 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and 1-for-12 in the series with seven strikeouts, including the final out Monday against Johnson.
“He just said, do what you’ve got to do basically,” Girardi said of Rodriguez’s reaction to the move.
It was the most significant managerial move involving Rodriguez since Joe Torre dropped him to eighth during the 2006 division series loss to the Tigers. Rodriguez took that personally, but his postgame comments after Game 3 reflected a different tone for the player so many fans wanted dropped from the third spot in the lineup.
“Team, team, team, that’s all we care about it,” Rodriguez said. “When he told me, I said ‘Joe’ you got to do what you got to do. I got up to the top step and started cheering. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Girardi made the move and when Ibanez turned on Johnson’s 1-0 fastball and sent it into the right-field seats, it changed the course of the night for the Yankees, who until that point had five hits and eight strikeouts in seven innings off Miguel Gonzalez.
Even for Ibanez, the move was a bit out of the ordinary, but he quickly put it behind him and slugged his first career postseason home run as a pinch hitter and 12th in Yankee history.
“Alex is one of the best hitters of all time and still is,” Ibanez said. “He’s one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game. So for a minute, I just thought something was going on. I didn’t know what was happening and then I just tried to put it behind me and get a good pitch to hit.”
“That was big,” Derek Jeter said. “Their closer had pitched well all year. It’s unbelievable by Raul.”
Ibanez got two good pitches to hit and when he opened the 12th by crushing a high cut fastball it gave the Yankees their first win on a home run since Mark Teixeira ended Game 2 of the 2009 ALDS with a home run down the right-field line.
“I was just trying to get a good pitch to hit,” Ibanez said. “I don’t even really remember what happened. It was kind of a blur what happened.”
“They looked absolutely identical,” Nick Swisher said. “One was from a right-hander and the other was from a left-hander. Both were rockets and line-drive home runs.”
It also was the latest in the series of clutch hits for Ibanez, who spent most of the summer slumping before hitting two home runs in a 14-inning win over Oakland on Sept. 22 and then the tying home run and the game-winning hit against Boston on Oct. 2.
What came next was pandemonium among the crowd, the same fans that grew frustrated with one fruitless at-bat after another against Gonzalez. Their frustration turned to jubilation after Ibanez made Girardi’s decision pay off.
“Joe rolled the dice and it worked,” Mark Teixeira said.
Before the ninth, the only run for the Yankees came in the third as Jeter tripled off center fielder Adam Jones’s glove, scoring Russell Martin from second base with two outs in the third.
Swisher and Martin had the other hits off Gonzalez, but each time they weren’t picked up by teammates. Swisher had a one-out single in the second, but Mark Teixeira hit into a double play. Martin’s second hit was a two-out single in the fifth, but he was stranded when Eric Chavez struck out on Gonzalez’s changeup.
The biggest out recorded by Gonzalez came in the sixth. The Yankees appeared to finally get something going when Jeter lined a single. After Ichiro avoided a double play, Rodriguez came up looking for his second hit of the series.
Rodriguez struck out on a check swing against Gonzalez’s fastball. Ichiro was stranded when Robinson Cano struck out on a weak swing on another fastball.
Those two strikeouts were part Gonzalez’s finishing flourish. He retired the final six hitters with four coming on strikeouts before being relieved by Darren O’Day.
O’Day easily got the first two outs of the eighth before facing Jeter. Jeter fell behind 0-2, but fouled off two pitches to stay alive before evening the count. On 2-2, he struck out swinging on an 86 mph fastball.
Jeter was then replaced by Jayson Nix at shortstop. After getting the triple, Jeter was seen hobbling around slightly but stayed in for the next five innings
The Orioles went up 1-0 when Ryan Flaherty lined a curveball into the right field seats with one out in the third. Hiroki Kuroda worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth by retiring Flaherty, but hung a first-pitch slider to Manny Machado, who deposited the pitch into the Baltimore bullpen beyond the left-field wall.
Derek Jeter is day-to-day with a bone bruise in on the top of his left foot but it seems unlikely he won’t be in the lineup tonight for Game 4. He suffered the injury when fouling a ball off it during one of his earlier at-bats.
Jeter lasted until the eighth and would have been pinch ran for had he reached base, but Girardi opted to replace him with Jayson Nix at that point.
“It’s not the same injury [he had been dealing with the last month]; he had a bone bruise on the top,” Girardi said. “He hit a ball off his foot, I believe it was the second or third pitch of the game or the second at-bat maybe. It’s a bone bruise and it’s day-to-day and we’ll see how he feels tomorrow. Hopefully we can get back in there.”
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.