No one told Raul

Nobody must’ve told Raul Ibanez that the Orioles were 76-0 this year when leading after seven innings. Before he stepped up to the plate for Alex Rodriguez in the bottom of the ninth with one out, they probably didn’t mention to him that the Baltimore closer, Jim Johnson, led the league in saves with 51.

Ibanez came out of the batting cage, to the on-deck circle, and eventually the plate; the Yanks trailing 2-1. The 40-year-old, notorious for being a low-ball hitter, took Johnson’s offering deep over the right field wall, a solo home run to dramatically tie the game up, 2-2.

In the bottom of the 12th, they once again probably forgot to tell Ibanez that the Orioles had previously won 16 consecutive extra-inning games, because Ibanez caught lightning in a bottle twice. He pounded the first pitch he saw over the wall in right and into the second deck – a shot that traveled even further than his game-tying home run – for a walk-off homer and a 3-2 Yankee victory in Game 3 of the ALDS.

Just like that, the Yankees lead the series, two games to one.

Rodriguez has been in a serious playoff funk: 1-for-12 out of the three hole in the lineup with no RBIs and seven strikeouts.

Manager Joe Girardi looked like an absolute genius, pinch-hitting for him in that spot.

“I went to him {A-Rod} and told him ‘you’re scuffling a little bit right now’ and we got a low-ball hitter and a shorter porch in right field, and left field, obviously,” Girardi said to the media after the game.

“Raul’s been a great pinch-hitter for us and I’m just going to take a shot.”

What’s perhaps funny is the first thought that entered my mind after Ibanez tied the game in the ninth. I remember covering a sectional high school baseball game in the spring, and the Head Coach made a similar move that paid dividends. The team wound up winning the game because he chose to pinch-hit one kid for another – and the pinch-hitter knocked in what turned out to be the deciding run with a sharp, RBI single to left field.

Afterward during my interview, I asked him if there was any rhyme or reason to making the move, and he simply told me,

“I figured I’d give it a shot and it worked out well…it made me look good.”

With the huge, dramatic hits, I’d say it’s a safe bet Ibanez will be in the lineup tonight. Having spent the past two games on the bench without starting, and coming up huge in two key spots, I think he’s earned it; perhaps Girardi should let Nick Swisher take a day, allow Ibanez to patrol left field tonight, and move Ichiro to right.

That would be my move, anyway.

Really though, an unsung hero of last night’s win was Hiroki Kuroda. Aside from two mistakes – pitches he left up for Orioles rookies Ryan Flaherty and Manny Machado to hit out for home runs – he was about as solid as they come.

Kuroda pitched into the ninth inning and let up only those two runs on just five hits. He only walked one batter and struck out three, giving the Yankees a stellar performance from a number three postseason starter.

Derek Jeter also deserves a fair amount of praise, knocking in the Yankees’ first run in the third with an RBI triple. The Captain also fouled a ball off his left foot in the first inning, giving himself a bone bruise – yet stayed in the game, valiantly, until the ninth inning when he was lifted for Jayson Nix.

You’d have to kill Jeter to keep him out of a postseason game, because he was adamant about playing today; shrugging off his foot pain and declaring he’d be ready for Game 4 tonight.

Phil Hughes (16-13, 4.23 ERA) will take the ball for the Yankees, hoping to close out the ALDS on a high note. Hughes has struggled mightily this year with command, serving up 35 home runs to opposing hitters, which was second most in the league.

The Orioles roughed Hughes up on Sept. 2, shellacking him for five earned runs in five innings on eight hits. The key for him tonight will be to keep his fastball moving and to not hang his breaking pitches. If his fastball has tailing action on it and his off-speed pitches drop, he’ll be fine. If not, the 26-year-old righty – and the Yankee bullpen – will be in for a long night.

He’ll be opposed by lefty Joe Saunders (9-13, 4.07 ERA) who beat the Texas Rangers in Baltimore’s Wild Card play-in game last Friday. Saunders also handed the Yanks a loss on Sept. 8.

However, quite a few Yankees have enjoyed a strong amount of success vs. Saunders in their respective careers. Last night’s hero Ibanez has homered off Saunders, the struggling Curtis Granderson has a home run off him, and the goat of this postseason thus far – Rodriguez – has even taken Saunders deep twice.

Don’t be surprised to see Nix in the lineup tonight: he has gone yard off Saunders three times in his career. If the Bombers are swinging the bats the way they have vs. Saunders in the past, it’ll be a good night to be wearing pinstripes.

Much like it was last night.

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