Rich Hofmann: Phillies' Ibanez playing as if he's been there before

LOS ANGELES - Sunshine gives way to darkness. Leads are built and then evaporate in the dry California night. Pitchers are changed and then changed again, lefty, righty, lefty, righty, serial stabs at success as the Phillies and Dodgers begin their journey. The drama is real. The hell is exquisite.

And you wonder: Who can take this madness again? And how can they possibly keep manufacturing heroes?

Raul Ibanez watches his three-run homer fly in the eighth inning of Game 1 victory.

Last night, it was Raul Ibanez who gave the Phillies a chance to exhale. It was Ibanez, who never had a chance to understand what 2008 was all about, putting a gigantic personal stamp on 2009.

He did it with a bolt into the rightfield pavilion in the top of the eighth inning, a three-run homer off Dodgers reliever George Sherrill. It was a shot that stretched a 5-4 Phillies lead into an 8-4 lead. It was a swing that gave Charlie Manuel's bullpen, patched together, dancing now between falling knives, enough of a cushion. It was a moment that gave heart rates an opportunity to stabilize, at least for a minute.

They awake this morning with all kinds of questions. After sweating blood and bullpen last night at Dodger Stadium, how can they possibly hope to win this series if Cole Hamels cannot find a way to be Cole Hamels again? After piecing together nearly four innings out of his tattered bullpen, how can Manuel possibly keep stitching this frayed fabric together?

Questions, buffered by victory; Phillies 8, Dodgers 6.

Exhaling, courtesy of Rauuuul.

"There's a lot of intensity in the games, a lot of energy," he said, trying to describe what the postseason is all about. "You definitely feed off of that energy.

"This is a great team. Everybody pulls for each other. It's an incredible feeling to be a part of it."

We never did get an official spelling of one of the really neat parts of the 2009 Phillies season. Nobody ever called the Associated Press to get the official AP style. Watching that home run, how many u's does it take to do the moment justice? How many u's does it take to express the emotion that people felt as that ball sailed out into the bleachers?

"You can feel the excitement build up in the dugout," he said. "Everybody is playing these games for the same reason, to win."

Ibanez arrived here and people were a little bit skeptical. He arrived with a reputation as a professional hitter and a top-notch teammate, but, well, you don't know until you know, right? And then Ibanez won people over in a nanosecond. A team that started slowly and was maybe still a little bit hungover from the World Series celebration was carried for the first third of the season by the only member of the starting eight who hadn't participated in the parade.

And the chant started, almost immediately.

And now, he will always be Rauuuuuuul.

"I was just thinking about not trying to do too much," Ibanez said, recalling the eighth-inning at-bat against Sherrill, when he swung at the first pitch and crushed it even though Sherrill had walked the previous two hitters.

"He's a tough pitcher, tough on lefthanders. You try to do less. A lot of times in this game, less is more."

We all know how the season played out - the left groin strain, the trip in June to the disabled list, the middle-of-the-season struggles that followed. People wondered, and understandably so, if Ibanez could recapture what he had shown at the beginning. He isn't a kid, after all, and he had never had power numbers like that before - he finished the regular season with 34 homers and 93 RBI - and all of us could only guess. As the long season melted away, as the real season began, what would Ibanez have left?

As it turns out, a ton.

He was excellent in the National League Division Series against Colorado. In the four games, he was 4-for-13 with five RBI. Add in four walks, and he was on base nearly half the time against the Rockies. He is a different player than the guy he replaced, Pat Burrell, a steadier player, a more predictable player when he is healthy - and it showed in that series.

And now, this.

The fact is, we really don't know if Ibanez is healthy at all. You can tell that he doesn't run as well as he did at the start of the season - even Manuel acknowledges that much. When you ask Ibanez about his health, a man who is normally a pretty straight talker dissolves into obfuscation. You get the sense that there is an injury that he is dealing with as best he can. You get the sense that he is the kind of player who is going to do everything in his power to make this experience memorable.

Because he did not have 2008, not with the Phillies, not with the parade. And right now, Raul Ibanez is playing like a guy who knows he missed out on something.

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