By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The New York Yankees rallied to beat the Baltimore Orioles in sensational fashion on Wednesday, getting two home runs from Raul Ibanez in a 3-2 win that put them on the brink of reaching the American League Championship Series.
The 40-year-old Ibanez, pinch-hitting for slumping slugger Alex Rodriguez, delivered a game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth inning and then led off the 12th with another blast deep into the right-field seats to win it.
The Yankee Stadium crowd of over 50,000 and the New York dugout erupted when Ibanez smashed the first pitch from left-handed reliever Brian Matusz in the 12th and the veteran was mobbed by his team mates after his trip around the bases.
The Yankees' victory snapped a streak of 16 extra-innings wins registered by the Orioles, and broke their perfect 74-0 mark this season when holding a lead after seven innings.
"Raul had some kind of day for us today, and you have to make some decisions sometimes that are tough decisions," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said about sending in the pinch-hitter for Rodriguez. "But I just had a gut feeling."
Ibanez said he was surprised at being asked to pinch-hit for one of baseball's top players.
"Alex is one of the best hitters of all time ... one of the greatest players in the history of the game," said Ibanez.
"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."
The thrilling victory gave New York a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five AL Division Series with a chance to finish it off at home on Thursday.
The decision to send Ibanez up to hit for Rodriguez, who stands fifth on the all-time home run list with 647 round-trippers and is the highest paid player in Major League Baseball, was a stunning move.
With the Orioles leading 2-1 and right-handed closer Jim Johnson on the mound, Yankees manager Joe Girardi decided the left-handed hitting Ibanez was the better option.
The crowd, who booed Rodriguez following strikeouts in previous two at-bats, cheered Ibanez as he stepped to the plate and the 40-year-old delivered by cracking a line drive into the seats to tie the score at 2-2.
Rodriguez slapped high-fives with injured closer Mariano Rivera as Ibanez circled the bases and was one of the first to greet him in the dugout.
"I'm one of the leaders of the team," the 37-year-old Rodriguez told reporters. "Maybe 10 years ago I wouldn't have reacted the same. I'm in a place right now where it's all about team wins.
"I don't think there was anyone more excited for Raul than me."
Rodriguez had gone 1-for-12 in the series with seven strikeouts when Girardi made the move to hit for him. 'A-Rod' is entirely unaccustomed to missing a turn at bat in a meaningful moment.
It was not the first late-inning heroics delivered by Ibanez in October.
In the penultimate regular season game as the Yankees battled Baltimore for the AL East title, Ibanez smacked 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 single.
Starting pitchers Hiroki Kuroda of the Yankees and Baltimore's Miguel Gonzalez dueled until the late innings with the Orioles leading 2-1 going into the ninth on solo home runs by second baseman Ryan Flaherty in the third and rookie third baseman Manny Machado in the fifth.
The Yankees' first run came on a run-scoring triple by captain Derek Jeter in the bottom of the third.
While the Game Three loss could prove critical in the best-of-five series, Orioles manager Buck Showalter praised his young team for their effort.
"I'm real proud of the way they competed," said Showalter. "Miguel was outstanding tonight, as was Kuroda, and I thought Jimmy (Johnson) pitched really well. One pitch, that's the world we live in."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)