They say lightning never strikes twice, but for a fortnight and a half at the end of the 2012 season, it struck seven times.
I don’t think anybody anticipated Raul Ibanez to be a game-changing acquisition when the Yankees signed him to a $1.1 million contract in February of 2012. It was hard not to have low expectations for a 40-year-old who, in the previous season, only managed a 91 OPS+, a 90 wRC+ and -1.9 fWAR.
As predicted, Ibanez was lackluster for most of the season filling in for an injured Brett Gardner. However it appears he discovered the Fountain of Youth the night of September 21st. The following game marked the beginning of a most miraculous run.
It was the bottom of the fifth inning of a seasonable September afternoon. One-time All-Star journeyman Raul Ibanez steps to the plate. There is a general inattention in the crowd, as he is only batting .222 with a .708 OPS on the season. However, with the home run he launched into the right field bleachers to put the Yankees up 5-4, a period was born in Yankees lore that will never die.
Fast forward to the bottom of the 13th and things are not looking good for the Yankees. Even so, Ibanez had not yet given his last say on the matter. After singles from Ichiro, A-Rod, and Cano, as well as a wild pitch and an Eduardo Nunez sac fly, Ibanez tied it at nine with his second home run of the game, thus capping Act One of his magnum opus. Little did we know what Ibanez had in store over the next 19 days.
Act Two would come on the second-to-last game of the regular season with the Yankees battling with the Orioles for the AL East lead. Down 3-1 in the bottom of the ninth against the Red Sox, Ibanez steps up to the plate as a pinch hitter after a Curtis Granderson single. There is now a noticeable buzz in the air as fans remember his feat 11 days prior. And Ibanez did not disappoint, roping a line drive home run over the short porch to tie the game. Then in the 12th, he did this:
His gutsy efforts proved to be decisive in the neck-and-neck divisional battle with the Orioles down the home stretch, as the win maintained the Yankees’ one game lead on the penultimate day of the regular season.
From that fateful Saturday afternoon in September through the final 11 games of the regular season, Ibanez batted .402 with a 1.261 OPS, including four home runs and nine runs batted in. The fireworks did not end there. His heroics in the upcoming postseason would truly cement his status as a cult favorite in Yankees history.
ALDS Game Three. The series is split one game apiece between New York and Baltimore. After a Manny Machado home run in the fifth, the Yankees enter the bottom of the ninth down 2-1 with a struggling Alex Rodriguez set to bat. Instead, Joe Girardi sends Ibanez in to pinch hit for A-Rod hoping a little more sorcery is left in his supernatural bat. As a peeved A-Rod looks on from the dugout, Ibanez proceeds to do this:
He wasn’t done.
Two days later, in the decisive Game Five, Ibanez again provided the spark, this time breaking the seal on a scoreless tie with an RBI single.
The final act of his masterpiece performance came in Game One of the ALCS. Things looked bleak for the Yankees with Tigers pitcher Doug Fister throwing seven shutout innings and Detroit putting four runs on the board. However, hope began to creep back into Yankees fans’ hearts after a Russell Martin single, an Ichiro two-run homer, and a Mark Teixeira walk. Cometh the hour, cometh the man as Ibanez sends it to extras with his game-tying two-run blast.
Unfortunately the luck had to end, with Jeter breaking his ankle in extra innings and the Yankees losing in twelve. The magic had run its course for the briefly charmed team as they were swept by the Tigers. As for Ibanez, the way he closed out the 2012 season signaled a flare of life late in his career. He turned that performance into a handsome $2.5 million payday the next season, in which he hit 29 HRs with the Mariners as a 41-year-old.
There was not a terrible amount to cheer about in the half decade following the last Yankees world title. The Core Four lapsed into retirement, the team was outmatched in the postseason, and even missed the playoffs altogether on two occasions. However, for a magical three weeks, the Yankees felt like the kings of baseball with Raul Ibanez on the throne.