- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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They have only 11 regular-season games left, and the choke chain that Yankees starting pitcher Ivan Nova was on Saturday -- to call his 58-pitch, 2⅓-inning stint a short leash wouldn't accurately describe it -- just added to the feel that the playoffs have already started in the Bronx. But by the end, so did the shrieks and gut-deep groans from the Stadium crowd when the Yanks seemed staggered and ready to fall 5 hours and 43 minutes after this epic started -- then roared back from four runs down in the 13th to win it in the 14th, after all.
And largely because of a 40-year-old platoon outfielder, Raul Ibanez, who brought the Yanks and himself back from the dead twice.
Just a night earlier, Yanks manager Joe Girardi called Russell Martin's walkoff homer in the 10th "The" biggest hit of the Yanks' season so far as they try to shake Baltimore in the AL East race.
But the distinction only held up a mere 18 hours or so -- or until Ibanez began his crazy, switchback-filled day. First, he blasted a pinch-hit homer to right in the fifth inning to temporarily push the Yanks back ahead. Then he could've lost the game for them twice -- once with his glove, and then with his legs -- before putting a dramatic capstone on his 3-for-4, 3 RBI day by blasting his second homer, this one a two-run shot in the top of the 13th, to tie the score at 9. That came just moments after the A's had seemingly crushed the Yanks with three home runs in a span of four batters in the top of the inning, including back-to-back home runs off tiring Yanks reliever Freddy Garcia.
With the game almost unbelievably rebooted now yet again, the Yanks rallied to win, 10-9, in the 14th and maintain their one-game lead over Baltimore. The winning run came on a two-out smash off the bat of Eduardo Nunez that spun out of first baseman Brandon Moss' glove for an error and drove in Ichiro Suzuki after rookie Melky Mesa, making his major league debut as a pinch runner, failed to score on what coulda-shoulda been a game-winning single by Alex Rodriguez two batters earlier.
Afterward, a thrilled Nunez said, "I never had a walkoff my whole life. But Ibanez -- oh man, amazing.
"Ibanez won the game."
How unlikely a hero was Ibanez? He came into this game hitless in his past 18 at-bats, and he'd scratched out only two hits in his previous 45 overall -- the same as the two chances he dodged Saturday to be a possible goat.
In the eighth, Ibanez had a fly ball glance off his glove on the warning track that gave the A's Josh Donaldson a double but luckily didn't cost the Yanks a run. Then in the 11th, Ibanez daringly (and just barely) legged out a double with parts of the crowd of 44,026 literally shouting "No!" Then -- following orders to run on contact, even with the A's infield drawn in and only one out -- Ibanez was out at home on a throw by A's second baseman Cliff Pennington. But not before he had bowled over catcher Cliff Norris in a teeth-rattling collision at the plate after seeing the ball arrive just before him.
Norris was very slow getting up, causing an A's trainer to jog out. And Ibanez pulled himself up and ran off a little crooked too, with a cut on his forearm. When he grabbed a drink of water in the dugout and spit it out, it was a mild surprise no teeth came out with it.
"Just trying to win the game -- just trying to win the game any way you can," Ibanez said later. Asked if he noticed the collision fire up the other Yankees in the dugout, Ibanez said, "Aw, I don't know. I was kinda upset I was out." Then, smiling now, he added: "I'm not good at multi-tasking."
Got all that?
It's a boxcar full of stuff to remember, all right. So much happened over the course of the game that even the Yanks' Girardi -- an infamous stickler for detail -- laughed and admitted he couldn't recall exactly what happened. Girardi just knew he was damn happy the game was finally over and won on a day his bullpen survived when neither closer Rafael Soriano nor setup man David Robertson was available. And he was struck -- though not surprised, he stressed -- that the talk among his players wasn't downbeat at all when they got back to the dugout after the A's dropped those three bombs on them in the 13th.
"When the guys came in, there was a lot of yelling, 'Let's go, let's go. One at-bat at a time,'" Girardi said. "Everyone was kind of caught up in that -- not so much that we had just given up four."
Several Yanks later admitted that they'd seen on the stadium scoreboard that the Orioles had polished off their remarkable 16th straight extra-inning win, this one a 9-6 victory at Fenway.
But it's not inconceivable that this one, solitary extra-inning win of their own could be something the Yanks look back on as their turning point of their stretch run. As Ichiro said later, "It's crunch time." And this was the kind of day a team bookmarks and harks back to, for a lot of reasons.
Like? The outcome temporarily plowed over the bad memory of Nova's short outing, a drop of the baton which ruined a week of seeing everyone else in the rotation, even just-activated Andy Pettitte, pitch so well. And just in time. The victory also saved the Yanks from having to wake up Sunday morning knowing they'd won six straight before Saturday, and they still hadn't pulled away from the Orioles.
The comeback assured the Yanks didn't lose any ground Saturday, either.
But they also might have picked up the biggest spark of belief yet that they have what it takes to win this race, and maybe even play deep into October. That hasn't been a given after the doubts that their age and injuries and the Orioles have created, getting hot in the past two months as the Yanks, once up by 10, try to avoid their biggest collapse in team history.
Pennant races have swung on crazier things than a 40-year-old part-time outfielder who brought himself and his team back from the dead. And the way aura and destiny seemed to have been hanging out at Camden Yards lately, the Yanks acted like it sure felt nice to finally see both make a reappearance in the Bronx. For a day, anyway, the magic was back.
Raul Ibanez carried the Yanks in a wild, 14-inning win over the A's.