Probably the best thing I’ve always liked about Raul Ibanez is how he can selectively talk the talk and then boldly walk the walk. And Ibanez isn’t really all that big a talker. But when he does say stuff, people wind up listening.
Why? Well, hey, if you haven’t figured it out by now, it’s probably too late. The guy’s 41 years old, he keeps taking everything folks throw at him — and I’m not talking about John Danks deploying the kitchen sink on him tonight before Ibanez’s third-inning home run on the 13th pitch of the at-bat — and then does something that makes you sit up and rub your head in amazement. Maybe it’s those two clutch home runs in last year’s pivotal division series game while with the Yankees. Or the fact he scored a three-year, $30-million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies at a time many felt his career might be winding down.
Perhaps it’s the fact he’s still playing four years after that Phillies deal began and nearly five since signing it.
Ibanez has heard folks knock his defense for years, but is still around manning the outfield. He’s heard the talk about how he should never be used against left-handers, but then he goes out and does that versus Danks. Sure, the platoon splits for Danks are not as pronounced as for some other lefties, but then again, there’s C.C. Sabathia three weeks ago in New York and look at what Ibanez did to him.
Ibanez walks the walk. He has his entire career, from the time folks put him down as a limited talent bench player who’d never be full-time to present-day, when some still suggest he’s a limited talent role player.
But players listen to Ibanez in the clubhouse. Not just because he’s older than them, either. It’s because he’ll say something and then go out on the field and do it — really, really well.
So, when Ibanez talks about the Mariners needing to never give in, no matter how tough the first two months have gone, what does he do tonight when he gets down 0-2 in the count? He doesn’t give in. He fights and fights, fouling off three 0-2 pitches in a row.
“You have to protect the whole plate,’’ Ibanez said. “When you’re 0-2, you have to protect everything and I was barely alive. Just fighting, battling.’’
Ibanez’s Mariners are barely alive right now, even after improving to eight under .500 with tonight’s 4-2 win. It’s the team’s equivalent to being in an 0-2 count. But Ibanez just showed them how it’s done.
“That was one of the best at-bats I’ve ever seen up here,’’ Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “I mean, you’ve seen at-bats similar to that, but the left-on-left, him fighting through so many different pitches and fouling them off, tough pitches. And neither guy was giving in.’’
And nobody in the Mariners dugout was turning their head away once the at-bat got to about the eighth pitch.
“It could have been a broken bat single,’’ Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan said. “It could have been anything and it wouldn’t have mattered because it was just such an awesome fight and that’s what he’s all about – sticking his nose in there and competing and not letting that guy beat him. That’s what he talks about and he exemplified it right there.’’
Remember back in those April road series in Texas against the Rangers and Astros, when the Mariners kept flailing away helplessly at every terrible pitch, or staring at third strikes down the middle, or grounding out meekly every time the count went 0-2 or 1-2? And that manager Wedge was all over the players for that? It’s because he wanted them doing what Ibanez did tonight with two strikes on him. Even if, as Ryan said, the at-bat had wound up a broken-bat single or even a popout, the battle had been waged and Danks had 13 fewer pitches left in his arm. That’s how you win ballgames one at-bat at a time.
“You’re protecting the plate,’’ Wedge said. “You’re making the pitcher work to get you out. You’re not going to leave it in the umpire’s hands. You’re going to fight off anything close and be ready to hit a pitch that’s in your zone.’’
Say what you will about Ibanez — and many have and still will — but the guy has 10 homers and a .508 slugging percentage two months into the season. You’ll take that from any 41-year-old part-timer seven days per week.
Ibanez also has advice about how not to get discouraged, even after a start as difficult as this one. That’s something, he said, the Mariners have to avoid at all costs. The question is how they go about doing that? Maybe by following his lead.
“You just don’t,’’ he said. “You don’t get discouraged. You keep fighting and battling.’’
At this point, that’s the only option this team has. And sometimes, as Ibanez just showed, it even pays off.