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A-Rod relegated to $29 million cheerleader

By Daniel Trotta

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez has blasted 647 home runs and signed two record-setting contracts in his career, so being benched with a crucial game on the line is something completely alien to the 37-year-old.

However, he experienced just that on Wednesday when manager Joe Girardi sent Raul Ibanez to pinch hit for him with the Yankees down by a run in the bottom of the ninth in Game Three of the AL Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles.

"Obviously not," Rodriguez told reporters when asked if he expected to be benched despite being mired in a slump that has dominated tabloid coverage of the playoffs. "I've never had that situation in my career."

Girardi's bold move paid off when Ibanez responded with a solo home run off Orioles closer Jim Johnson to tie the game and send it to extra innings.

Ibanez then reprised his role as Yankees saviour by blasting another home run off Brian Matusz when leading off the bottom of the 12th, giving the Yankees a 3-2 win and a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-five playoff series.

Rodriguez seemed to be unaffected by his relegation, giddily celebrating with his team mates and hugging Ibanez as he came back to the dugout.

"I've got to be honest. I don't know how I would have reacted 10 years ago," said Rodriguez, who had a reputation as a petulant and self-centered player earlier in his career.

"I've said it and I know you guys don't like to hear it. I've matured a lot in the last few years."

The highest paid player in the game with a salary of $29 million this season, Rodriguez has seen his slugging percentage drop below .500 the past two years, the worst since he was a teenager playing for the Seattle Mariners.

Fifth on the all-time home run list, he has not gone deep since September 14 and had been 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts in the playoffs when Girardi called on Ibanez.

The move surprised also the 40-year-old Ibanez.

"I mean he's one of the greatest players in the history of the game. So for a minute I just thought something was going on, I didn't know what was happening, and then I just tried to put it behind me and get a good pitch to hit," Ibanez said.

"Being in that situation and being part of something like this, this great team, and obviously all the legends that have come before you here is an extraordinary feeling, and it's a great blessing," he added.

"And then to be part of something like that is definitely a special moment."

Girardi said his pinch-hitting move came down to a "gut feeling", even though before the game he repeatedly defended his decision to continue Rodriguez at third in the lineup.

Rodriguez said he was certain he would start Thursday's Game Four, while Girardi was yet to decide whether to move the slugger down the order or find room for Ibanez in the lineup.

"Let me sleep on this one," Girardi said.

(Editing by John O'Brien)

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