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Ibañez leads Royals to victory
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08/21/2002 00:09 am ET 
Ibañez leads Royals to victory
By Robert Falkoff /

Raul Ibanez has hit 21 home runs this season. (AP)

TORONTO -- When teams pitch around main man Mike Sweeney, it's not the dilemma it used to be for the Royals. That's because Raul Ibañez has become a willing and able first lieutenant to Sweeney in the Kansas City batting order.

With a runner at second and one out in the 12th inning Tuesday night, Toronto made the obvious move by intentionally walking Sweeney. That's what teams do with a base open and Sweeney at the plate. It's practically automatic.

But Ibañez continued his magical season by making the Blue Jays pay. Ibañez worked the count to 3-2 against Scott Cassidy and then drilled a game-winning, three-run homer to straightaway center. Although closer Roberto Hernandez wavered in the bottom of the inning, the Royals held on to win 6-5 and clinch their first .500 or better road trip this season.

"It was the right move (walking Sweeney)," Ibañez said. "Mike Sweeney is the leading hitter in the league and one of the top hitters in the game. I would walk Sweeney to get to me every time in that situation."

Ibañez is as modest as he is hot.

  Raul Ibanez   /   DH
Height: 6'2"
Weight: 200
Bats/Throws: L/R

More info:
Hit chart

In his last 67 games, Ibañez has 20 homers and 70 runs batted in. It was his second game-winning homer on what has been a 3-2 road trip with the series finale against the Blue Jays still to be played Wednesday afternoon.

Ibañez admitted he gets pumped up for the kind of scenario that unfolded in the 12th inning.

"When somebody gets intentionally walked before you, then you try to make them hurt, ideally," Ibañez said. "It doesn't always work out that way. Fortunately for us, I was able to perform right there."

Ibañez now has 84 RBIs and is a good bet to reach the 100-plateau with Sweeney hitting just ahead of him in the order.

"I'm thankful to the organization and (manager) Tony Peña for giving me the opportunity," Ibañez said. "Tony has thrown me out there and believed in me. He has given me the chance to go out on the field and run every day. I'm happy I've been able to do some things for him."

The 12th inning opened with leadoff man Aaron Guiel drawing a walk. Because he believed so strongly in Ibañez, Peña had no qualims about instructing Michael Tucker to put down a sacrifice bunt, even though the Royals' manager knew that would take the bat out of Sweeney's hands. Peña let Tucker take one swing. After Tucker fouled a ball into the stands, Peña flashed the sign for the sacrifice.

"That's the luxury we have right now with Ibañez," Peña said. "I said I was going to let Tucker swing at the first pitch because if they threw a fastball in the middle of the plate, he could hit it out of the park also. After that, he bunted the man over. They're going to walk Sweeney, but Raul has been one of the best clutch hitters we've had this year."

"Tony has thrown me out there and believed in me. He has given me the chance to go out on the field and run every day. I'm happy I've been able to do some things for him."

-- Raul Ibañez

The Royals were outhit 16-7, but the bullpen unit of Jason Grimsley, Ryan Bukvich and Jeremy Affeldt kept Toronto off the scoreboard from the seventh through the 11th to give Kansas City a chance. Finally, Ibañez delivered the big hit.

"It lasted a long time and both clubs were really battling," Ibañez said. "I'm not going to say my heart wasn't going 100 beats a minute in that last inning. But we pulled it out."

Just four nights earlier, Ibañez hit a game-winning, two-run homer in the ninth against Tampa Bay.

"I wouldn't say it's a habit, but I feel blessed to be able to come through for the team like that," Ibañez said.

Cassidy, normally a one to two-inning man, was in his third inning of work when Ibañez took him deep.

"He was still pretty sneaky," Ibañez said. "The first couple of fastballs he threw got on me a little quicker than I anticipated. I just happened to get the fat part of the bat on the ball when the count got to 3-2."

Ibañez said he was "just looking to survive" with a full count.

"I had three opportunities prior to that when I could have driven in a run and I didn't come through in any of the three," Ibañez said.

Nevertheless, Peña was confident about using the sacrifice bunt to put Ibañez in the 12th-inning spotlight.

"Tony has the confidence in me and he projects that on to me," Ibañez said. "You feel that. He's believes in me and he's positive all the time and upbeat. "

Memo to the American League managers: If you pitch around Sweeney, proceed at your own risk.

Having Ibañez at the plate in a game situation is clearly no bargain.

Robert Falkoff covers the Royals for This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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