Commentary

Ibanez, Yankees slay King Felix

The Yanks' oldest position player took the Mariners' ace deep, a knockout blow

Updated: May 12, 2012, 1:31 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- The King is dead. Long live The King.

The transfer of power was swift and merciless as one king, Raul Ibanez -- a dead ringer for Yul Brynner as the king of Siam -- deposed another, King Felix Hernandez, with a swing of his mighty scepter, er, bat, at Yankee Stadium on Friday night.

Ibanez's blow, a line-drive home run into the right-field seats with two men on base in the sixth inning, did more than merely provide the killing blow in the Yankees' 6-2 victory over the Seattle Mariners.

[+] EnlargeRaul Ibanez
Debby Wong/US PresswireRaul Ibanez had the biggest hit of the night on Friday, a round-tripper against Felix Hernandez.

It also ended a reign of terror that had held the home team hostage in its own ballpark.

Until this game, the Yankees could not figure out a way to vanquish King Felix, the Mariners' brilliant 26-year-old right-hander. Since moving into their new ballpark three seasons ago, the Yankees not only couldn't beat Hernandez -- he was 3-0 in three appearances here -- it took them 21 innings before they could even manage to score a run off him.

Hernandez's record at Yankee Stadium 3.0 was 3-0 with 0.38 ERA. That is not a misprint. Hernandez had allowed them just one run in 24 innings pitched in the Bronx and had struck out 27.

Plus, he came to town with a 3-1 record and a 1.89 ERA.

With a one-run lead and two out in the sixth, Hernandez seemed well on his way to 4-1 when Ibanez jumped on a first-pitch fastball and sent it rocketing out of the park. The oldest non-pitcher on the Yankees roster -- Ibanez will turn 40 on June 2 -- now has six home runs and 19 RBIs in just 82 at-bats.

No less an authority on the subject than Robinson Cano marveled afterward, "Everything he hits is a bullet," and, indeed, Ibanez bears little resemblance to the player who struggled through spring training with a slow bat and little pop in his swing.

Back in March, it looked as if the Yankees had made a major mistake in letting go of Jorge Posada, who is just 10 months older than Ibanez, and replacing him with a player who looked like anything but an upgrade.

But now, 31 games into the season, Ibanez is looking more and more like a dangerous weapon in the lineup, a guy who will never hit for a high average but seems to crush everything he hits.

"I really do have a short memory," Ibanez said of his miserable spring, during which he hit just .150. "I don't remember what happened, and it's worked out a lot of times, for the better. So I really don't remember that far back."

Joe Girardi, however, remembered and was concerned enough to look into it.

"I just talked to some people and they said, 'It just takes him a while to get going in spring training," Girardi said. "And sometimes you find that with older players. It takes them a while to get their timing. And it seemed each week his at-bats got a little bit better. That's kind of what we saw, and he held true to that."

"If that's what Joe says," Ibanez said, not eager to concede the point. "Well, I guess, yeah, he's right."

In any event, there's been nothing slow about Ibanez's regular season so far. Signed to be half of a designated hitter platoon with Andruw Jones, the left-handed-hitting Ibanez has been pressed into outfield duty with the injuries to Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner.

In all candor, he can be dangerous out there with a glove on, but not nearly as dangerous as he is with a bat in his hand. The Yankees brought him aboard figuring if he could come close to his 2011 production as a Philadelphia Phillie -- .245 batting average but 20 homers and 84 RBIs -- he and Jones could combine for a formidable DH combo.

In this game, they did exactly as planned. Two innings after Ibanez's blast, Jones, pinch-hitting for Eric Chavez, parked one in the Mariners' bullpen to provide a couple of insurance runs and allow David Robertson to make his return to the mound without the pressure of a save situation.

In fact, the heart of the Yankees lineup suddenly seems to be rounding into form. Cano went 4-for-4, continuing a tear that began with a grand-slam homer in Kansas City on Sunday. Since that game, Cano has 10 hits in his past 15 at-bats, and seven of those hits came against King Felix and David Price, two of the best starters the AL has to offer.

"Well, I just think our guys are starting to feel better at the plate," Girardi said. "I looked up and Felix had given up seven hits, and six of them were from guys right in the middle of the lineup. That's important, because those guys have to hit for us to be successful. And they're starting to do it."

Alex Rodriguez also had two hits, and so did Mark Teixeira, who had what looked like an RBI single in the fourth, except that A-Rod got gunned down at the plate by Mariners left fielder Mike Carp.

With Hernandez on the mound, that looked as if it would be an important, and maybe game-deciding, play.

That is, until Ibanez, who had played behind Hernandez as a Mariner for three seasons but only faced him three times as a hitter, decided not to let the craftsman get ahead of him after having retired him twice previously in this game.

"Somebody asked me, "Hey, what's Felix throw?'" Ibanez said. "And I said, 'I have no idea, I [was in] the outfield.' But I watched a lot of video and he threw me first-pitch fastballs the first two times up. When you're facing an elite pitcher like him, sometimes the first pitch is the best one he's going to throw you, and then he gets nasty. So that was my mindset. Whatever you see that's good to hit, jump on it."

And jump on it he did, one king jumping another.

Checkmate.

NOTES: The Yankees survived a potentially embarrassing moment when the returning Jesus Montero homered leading off the sixth to give the Mariners a fleeting 2-1 lead. It was Montero's fifth of the season. ... Robertson came on with one out in the ninth and a runner on first and quickly retired pinch-hitter Casper Wells on a fly to right and center-fielder Michael Saunders on a groundout. ... With Rafael Soriano unavailable, Girardi used three pitchers -- Clay Rapada, Cory Wade and Boone Logan -- to get three outs in the eighth.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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