NEW YORK -- He is the punching bag of Red Sox Nation. He is the player Sox fans love to loathe. And a lot of Sox players apparently feel the same way.
So there was a lot of interest in Alex Rodriguez before last night's 8-3 Yankee rout of Curt Schilling and the Red Sox.
At issue was A-Rod's hard slide and elbow jab at Dustin Pedroia in the eighth inning of Tuesday's 7-3 Red Sox victory. The dust-up with Dustin came on a one-out, bases-loaded grounder to third by Jorge Posada. Thanks in large part to A-Rod's slide, Posada beat Pedroia's relay throw and the Yankees scored a run. After the game, Pedroia called the play "a little cheap," and the incident was a big deal here yesterday.
Nobody was backing off before the Yankees won the rubber game of the rather dreadful series (take cover, the Sox' lead is down to 9 1/2 games).
Rodriguez said, "It was a hard slide. It was an awkward slide. We're struggling for every run. I may have come up [with my elbow], but I didn't roll. They have their opinion over there, but I don't take exception . . . I'm not going to go in like a little baby and try to hug him."
Pedroia smiled when the comment was relayed to him.
"He better get down next time," said the rookie. "If he doesn't he's going to get hit by the ball . . . I wouldn't slide into Derek Jeter like that. I slide in hard, but low. I wouldn't try to hurt Derek Jeter."
While Pedroia was speaking, Kevin Youkilis (actually, it might have been Steve Garvey -- hard to tell them apart these days) strolled by and asked about the play.
"Is everybody talking about it just because it's A-Rod?" Youkilis asked Pedroia.
"No," said the kid. "He threw up his elbow."
Sox players love to rip Rodriguez. Remember the frenzy of A-Rod bashing in the spring of 2005? Rodriguez's purse slap of Bronson Arroyo was still on everyone's mind, and Trot Nixon got the ball rolling by saying he didn't appreciate A-Rod claiming to be the only ballplayer who worked hard during the offseason. Nixon called A-Rod a "clown." Johnny Damon piled on next. Arroyo had his say. And of course, Curt Schilling -- the final word on everything -- weighed in heavily.
It's like Schill always says, "There are good people and there are bad people."
Does A-Rod get weary of playing the piñata?
"I haven't been a piñata this year," he countered. "I've actually been a pretty good guy."
What about Pedroia changing his arm slot next time A-Rod is steaming toward second?
"That's a good idea," said Rodriguez. "I played shortstop a long time. This is just part of the game. I try to go in hard and clean.
"Hey, we're playing for our lives right now. There's no room for distraction. Every game for us is a playoff game. They've got a great team over there and I respect them. I always play hard and I'm never going to apologize for the way I play. Just try to keep it clean. It's just part of baseball."
The two managers had little to say about the topic. Yankees skipper Joe Torre longed for the old days when an aggressive slide (borderline dirty, depending on what you choose to see) was no big deal. "The only thing I saw is that he went in hard," said Torre. Meanwhile, Terry Francona -- who seemed unusually agitated for a man with a 9 1/2-game lead -- reacted as if he'd been asked for his ATM password and said, "I'm not going there. That's not baseball. I'm not that interested."
Francona might have been more interested an hour or so later when umpiring crew chief Joe West met with the managers in the underbelly of the Stadium. They might have been talking about the pace of games or the price of peas. Or they might have been agreeing that none of Schilling's first 38 pitches would hit A-Rod in the rib cage.
Unfortunately for the Sox, Schilling (12 hits, five earned runs in six innings) could not afford to think about retribution. He was down, 3-0, with no outs when Rodriguez first came to bat. Schilling's first pitch was right down Broadway and A-Rod took it for a strike. Rodriguez flied to center. Two innings later, A-Rod doubled to center and scored as the Yankees crushed Schilling for nine hits and six runs in the first three innings. When Doug Mientkiewicz homered off the third-deck facade in the fourth, you knew it was not going to be Schilling's night.
Schilling was probably blogging when A-Rod came up for the fourth time, facing the maniacal Brendan Donnelly in the seventh. There was no chin music. A-Rod was retired on a fly to left.
And that'll be it until next they meet a week from tomorrow night at Fenway Park. Meanwhile, the Red Sox' magic number is holding steady at 108.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.