No matter the masks. No matter the jeers. No matter the singsong mocking, the screams of "Mine!," the tabloid headlines, the questions about his sportsmanship. No matter the pressure of being himself.
Two outs. Two strikes. And, suddenly, the ball was flying, the crowd was cowering, and the weight was gone for the moment.
Alex Rodriguez left it all behind, for a night at least, sending a fastball from Jonathan Papelbon over the head of Coco Crisp and into the Red Sox bullpen in the ninth inning, breaking a tie, and sealing a win (game and series) for the Yankees -- a much-needed outcome for a team that had hoped to come into Boston and leave with a sweep.
They wouldn't do that, but they would score two runs (one each) against Hideki Okajima and Papelbon, the pair whose mastery of the Yankees this season was erased in a 6-5 win for the New Yorkers last night that kept them above the Devil Rays in the American League East cellar.
"I had him 0-2, exactly what I wanted to do, obviously," Papelbon said. "In that situation I've got to throw him something that is outside the zone -- and I didn't do that.
"I threw the ball where I wanted to. I've just got to think next time I've got to get that ball out of the zone and get him to chase something I want to throw."
Seemingly invincible -- and certainly against the Yankees -- Okajima had been tabbed his team's MVP during an early-season series between the two teams. That still could be, though Kevin Youkilis, Mike Lowell, and Josh Beckett certainly could argue, but Okajima has ceased to be unhittable. He has had to settle for merely good, getting his first win of the season Saturday afternoon but following that with his first blown save last night, the precursor to Papelbon's first loss of the season.
"I know it was a good pitch," Francona said of the Papelbon fastball. "We've seen him do that before with that pitch, ahead in the count like that. I would say, to almost every hitter in the league it's a great pitch, [A-Rod] has the ability -- not all the time -- but to hit that ball out like only maybe Manny [Ramírez], [Vladimir Guerrero], a couple hitters can."
With the predicted rain finally beginning to fall as the stands thinned and the game lurched toward its fourth hour, Okajima came out for the eighth after getting Jorge Posada fly to center to strand two in the seventh. But the eighth would not be as kind, with a single to right by Hideki Matsui being followed by a triple by Robinson Cano over Crisp's head in deep center tying the score at 5 and extending a typically interminable Sox-Yankees game.
Two doubles into his evening, Dustin Pedroia nearly provided the desired outcome for those of the 36,793 who chose to remain, sending a smash toward the right-center field gap in the eighth, where the defensively shaky (at least in this series) Bobby Abreu came up with a running, reaching, backhanded catch to steal one from Pedroia with men on first and second and the score tied, setting the scene for Rodriguez's one-night redemption.
And the Sox missed another chance when Julio Lugo slid around the plate coming home on -- of course -- a Pedroia double in the sixth, ending the inning and the chance to build on a 5-4 lead when he was called out on a 7-6-2 relay.
But on a night Francona said his starter was better than Beckett gave himself credit for, the Sox did what has been rare for them: Give up a late-inning lead.
"It happens," Ortiz said. "Those are guys that they've been doing great for a long time for us. They're going to make mistakes. They're human and they always try their best out there."
Beckett was coming off a strong return against the Indians Tuesday, after having been on the disabled list with an avulsion to his right middle finger. But facing a team that has long at-bats caused his night to end earlier than the Sox likely would have preferred. A 12-pitch first inning gave way to 31 pitches (and one run) in the second and 19 in the third, bringing him to a total of 62.
Not exactly the best way to start game in which a pitcher has any aspirations of reaching the seventh. Except Beckett did, despite the three-run fifth that put the Red Sox in a 4-0 hole. And he left with the lead, too.
But even though three members of the bullpen -- Javier Lopez, Brendan Donnelly, and Okajima -- protected a 5-4 lead Beckett wasn't able to claim his ninth win on the young season.
And though the Sox had followed up on their practice this season of immediately recovering from an opposition "crooked number," this time completing the feat with a five-run fifth that featured the extension of Pedroia's hitting streak to 13 games on a bases-loaded, bases-clearing double, it didn't take care of the Yankees.
Rodriguez did. And then, Mariano Rivera did.
With Rivera on the mound in the ninth, the Sox had one last chance, a ball smoked off the bat of Ortiz in an 11-pitch at bat to open the inning. It was, like that Pedroia ball, tracked down by Abreu in deep right.
"Fighting, fighting, fighting," Ortiz said. "Fighting to hit a ball. Wasn't lucky enough."
He wasn't. His team wasn't. It was -- for once -- Rodriguez's turn.