Whatever entered the mind of Raul Ibanez as he strode to the plate for his first at bat on Sunday, July 31, the thought couldn’t have lingered too long.
A day earlier, his new teammate, , had made his Phillies debut. The arrival of Pence essentially pronounced that Ibanez’s days in Philadelphia were numbered. After all, a 39 year-old outfielder in the final year of his contract, an outfielder who had endured hitless streaks of 35 and 18 earlier in the season, surely had to see the writing on the wall.
Although Domonic Brown, the young right fielder, was the player immediately optioned to the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs to make room for Pence, Ibanez was fully aware that the Phillies organization considered the youngster Brown to be a future cog in the Phillies wheel and in fact, had informed Brown that he would now play left field, to prepare for the future. Thirty-nine year old outfielders that compile hitless streaks which comprise perhaps 1/10th of the season, can easily see that their future holds a great deal of doubt.
Ibanez dug into the batter’s box in the home half of the second inning of a scoreless game against Pittsburgh Pirate ace, Jeff Karstens. There was little time to think of one’s mortality or vulnerability. On a 1-0 pitch, Raul drove a pitch left out over the plate to the nether regions of center field. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh’s superb young center fielder, turned, took an obligatory look, and watched the ball disappear over the deepest part of Citizens Bank Park.
The professional hitter had given the Phillies a 1-0 lead. The home run was Ibanez’s 15th of the season, which enabled Raul to tie Hall of Famer Joe Morgan as the oldest Phillies player to hit at least 15 home runs in a season. Morgan accomplished the feat in 1983.
With the sold out crowd of 45,809, the 182nd consecutive regular season sellout, still delirious over the arrival of Hunter Pence, the Phillies trailed the Pirates 5-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning. With two out and Hunter Pence on first base, the veteran Ibanez looked for a first pitch fastball from Jose Veras and got it. As the high line drive cleared the left-center field fence, the crowd erupted in joy as the Phillies, behind Raul’s feats had rallied to tie the score at 5-5.
The blast marked the 14th multi home run game of Ibanez’s illustrious career, but his heroics had not ended. After Pence lined a one-out double in the bottom of the tenth inning, Pirates left-hander Tony Watson faced Raul with the game on the line. On a 1-0 pitch, Ibanez lined a double into the right field corner to complete a three game sweep of the western Pennsylvania rivals and an extraordinary day for the veteran outfielder.
Entering July, the Phillies, one cannot deny, were an offensively challenged team. Of course, many pointed fingers at Raul Ibanez, since his combined 0-53 slumps certainly contributed to the offensive malaise and when a ballplayer reaches the age of 39, well, he’s an easy target.
However, something miraculous occurred in July. Incredibly, the Phillies led the National League in runs scored. Even more unlikely, Raul Ibanez was the greatest catalyst of the power surge. As Ibanez was mobbed by his teammates after delivering his walk-off hit on Sunday, July 31, Ibanez had knocked in 25 runs in his last 20 games, which ranked number one in all of baseball. However, with the usual panic which seems to coincide with “failure,” however temporary, one man continued to believe in Ibanez and insisted that he would hit.
Of course, I’m referring to Charlie Manuel, a man who knows a thing or two about hitting.
Raul, extremely articulate and affable, has always been a fan favorite and also has enjoyed an outstanding rapport with writers, players and fans alike. In a recent poll of major league players, Raul finished second in the category, “Nicest Guy in Major League Baseball,” being edged out by Jim Thome. Ibanez has driven in over 100 runs four times in his career, accomplishing the feat in ’02 with Kansas City (103), ’06 with Seattle (123), ’07 with Seattle (105) and ’08 also with Seattle (110).
Raul’s lifetime statistics through the end of July were rather impressive. In a career spanning 1774 games and 6232 at bats, Ibanez has scored 910 runs, clubbed 1754 hits, which include 367 doubles, 43 triples, 248 home runs and 1029 RBIs. His lifetime batting average is a solid .281. And despite the fact that young Domonic Brown is being groomed for Raul’s left field position, a wise move may very well be for the Phillies to extend Raul’s contract to include the 2012 season with a team option for 2013.
With the superb physical condition that Ibanez, as popular of a teammate that exists on the Phillies, maintains, and in light of his extraordinarily productive July, I’m quite sure than Raul’s biggest supporter, Manuel, would concur.