By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Raul Ibanez, one of the last players added to the New York Yankees' squad for the 2012 season, has been one of their most valuable players in the chase for a 28th World Series title for the fabled franchise.
The 40-year-old Ibanez, a very good hitter in the twilight of a long career, has brought a huge return on a $1.1 million free agent contract as the left-handed slugger has come through in three huge games in this year's pennant drive.
He crowned his spectacular clutch run in Wednesday's 3-2 win over the Baltimore Orioles by cracking a home run in the ninth while pinch-hitting for $29-million-man Alex Rodriguez to send the game into extra innings and then belting a walk-off home run in the 12th.
"PINCH ME!" screamed the front page headline of the Daily News under a picture of Ibanez's dreamy heroics in a victory that gave New York a 2-1 lead in their best-of-five American League Division Series.
"A-WHO!" exclaimed the New York Post across their back page.
"It's been a blur," the bald-headed Ibanez said about all the big games and the part he has played in many of them in pursuit of his first World Series ring.
On Wednesday, Ibanez became the first Major League Baseball player to hit a home run in the ninth inning and another in extra innings of a postseason game.
The 17-year major league veteran who played in Seattle, Kansas City and Philadelphia before signing with the Yankees in February, had already made his presence felt in two other key comeback wins late in the season.
On September 22, Ibanez, who earlier in the contest had cracked a pinch-hit home run, blasted a game-tying, two-run home run in the 13th inning to cap a comeback that erased a four-run lead taken by the Oakland Athletics and allowed New York to win the game in the 14th.
Then on October 2, in the penultimate game of the regular season with the Yankees battling Baltimore for the American League East title, Ibanez blasted a two-run pinch-hit homer in the bottom of the ninth against Boston to tie the game and then won it in the 12th with a run-scoring single.
Ibanez was hired on by the Yankees to serve primarily as a lefty hitting DH, but was pressed into outfield duty when left-fielder Brett Gardner was sidelined because of an elbow injury.
He came through in that role, too, during the first half of the season although his bat quieted in the second half before coming alive when the chips were down in the stretch drive.
Ibanez helped the Phillies reach the 2009 World Series after a season in which he belted 34 home runs, drove in 93 runs and batted .272. But his quest to win a Fall Classic crown fell short as the Yankees prevailed for the 27th time.
The next two seasons in Philadelphia, Ibanez showed signs of slipping as he totaled 36 homers and batted just .245 in 2011.
Ibanez, who hit 19 home runs and drove in 62 runs during the 2012 season, provided some insight into his clutch hitting.
"I think the tendency late in the game when the game is tied, we try to do a little too much," he said. "I was trying to fight that feeling, trying not to do too much. And fortunately it worked out."
Ibanez said success often begets success.
"You definitely try to draw on past experiences, past successes, and you try to have a short memory about past failures, too," he said. "I'm really just trying to stay in the moment and get a good pitch to hit."
The whirlwind of October baseball was further intensified last week when he dashed from the clubhouse celebration marking the clinching of the division title as his wife, Teryvette, had gone into labor with the couple's fifth child.
"I'm a very blessed man," Ibanez said.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)