SOMETIMES acceptance is found in the strangest places, at the oddest times. So, sure, Raul Ibanez noticed when the paying customers at Citizens Bank Park began chanting Rauuuul earlier in the year and how loudly they cheered when he hit that walkoff homer against the Padres in April.

It was a strikeout and a mistake in the outfield at Citizens Bank Park that really made him feel at home, though.

"I really knew that I was in the right place when, early in the season, I struck out on a curveball in the dirt," the Phillies leftfielder said. "I just dropped my bat and ran as hard as I could to first. I was really upset that I had struck out.

"And when I got back to the dugout, they were yelling at me. I thought they were going to be yelling other stuff. But they were yelling, 'That's the way to hustle' and, 'That's the way to play the game the right way.' I mean, yelling with intensity. And I thought, 'I think I'm going to like it here if they notice that.' ''

He had a similar experience after diving for a sinking line drive, only to have the ball skip under his glove and roll to the wall.

"I'm running back and I pick up the ball and I throw it in," he said. "And people were yelling at me, 'That's the way to do it' or something like that. Something positive. I dove and I missed, but it's one of the few places in the country that would notice that you went all out for it. You messed up, but they appreciate the effort.

"They seem to care not just about getting it done, but how you get it done."

Shoot, if Ibanez isn't careful, he will ruin the reputation of Philadelphia fans for being hard-bitten, cynical and demanding.

Even before that, he had won over his new teammates. Clubhouse chemistry can be a fragile ecosystem. There was no guarantee that he would fit in so seamlessly. When Charlie Manuel makes out his lineup card for Game 1 of the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers tomorrow night, seven of the eight position players will be the same names who carried the team on its October magic carpet ride last year.

The lone change is Ibanez. He replaced Pat Burrell, who was a popular figure in the room.

Some also questioned the wisdom of giving such a hefty free-agent contract (3 years, $31.5 million) to a player who would turn 37 before the All-Star break and who had spent his entire career in the American League.

Those who played with him in Seattle never doubted he would succeed at all levels.

"He's one of the best teammates I've ever had," lefthander Jarrod Washburn said during spring training in Peoria, Ariz. He added that Ibanez' departure was a "huge loss" for the Mariners.

Veteran Mike Sweeney took it even further.

"He's one of the best teammates, one of the best human beings, one of the best ballplayers I've ever played with in my major league career," he said. He went on to say that the Phillies were "blessed" to have him.

So far, so good. Ibanez made the All-Star team for the first time in his career. He hit a career-high 34 home runs. And he did that despite spending more than 3 weeks on the disabled list with a strained left groin, an interruption that did more than cost him playing time.

Before the injury: .312 average with 22 homers, 59 RBI and a 1.027 OPS in 62 games.

After coming back: .232, 12, 34 and .771 in 72 games.

"He was on pace to have a big year. He had everything going and he was locked in," Manuel said. "When he got hurt, he lost his timing. And he's a guy who has such a big routine and he's a conditioning guy. He had to come back and work himself back into what he calls baseball shape. That definitely took something away from him."

"I think it's normal to think, 'What if it didn't happen?' At the same time, this is major league baseball and it isn't normal," he said. "So since it's not a normal environment, I can't allow myself to think normal thoughts. I've got to overcome those thoughts and do whatever I can to help the team win. It may not always have been swinging the bat. It may have been something defensively, baserunning, something like that.

"It's definitely trying. But you battle through it. You fight it. And all of that [doesn't] mean a hill of beans come [the playoffs]."

He hedged, however, when asked late in the regular season whether he's fully recovered.

"I think I'm all right."

Is he experiencing lingering effects?

"Everybody feels something at this point of the season. So I'm all right."

Is postseason surgery a possibility?

"We'll see when we get there. For right now, I'm just trying to help this club in any way that I can."

Going into the National League Division Series against the Rockies, he was on an upswing, with seven homers in his last 26 regular-season games. He was able to carry that into the postseason, batting .308 in the four games and driving in five runs.

This isn't the first time Ibanez has been on a team that went to the playoffs. But it's the first time he has been such an integral part.

He spent most of the 1997 season at Triple A Tacoma, but was called up late in the season.

"I got to toss the champagne around and do that whole thing. It was great. It was awesome," he said. "I remember Norm Charlton walked up to me and said, 'Hey, you're pretty lucky.' There were a few profanities laced into that. So he said, 'You're pretty friggin' lucky to be a part of this.' And I didn't really get it."

The Mariners went back to the playoffs in 2000, but Ibanez was a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement back then, who started to get a little more playing time at the end of the schedule. It was 9 years before he'd get another shot, and this time he gets it.

"I completely understand now what [Charlton] meant,' he said. "I definitely appreciate it a lot more. It really is what you play for. You get tired of watching it on television. Or not, trying to avoid it. Which sometimes I did, too. Sometimes it hurts to watch. So this is definitely great."

Maybe even better than getting cheered for striking out and misjudging a fly ball.