In heat of Rivalry, Posada under fire

NEW YORK -- Jorge Posada sat there with his left knee caked in ice, cooling down from a hot and tense night inside the belly of the American League East beast.

David Ortiz had just reminded everyone why there remains nothing in baseball quite like the rivalry between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Ortiz homered in the fifth after Hector Noesi had dusted him inside, then executed a figure skater's pirouette and a dismissive flip of the bat that even flipped a switch inside the noted stoic, Joe Girardi.

"I didn't really care for it," the losing manager said.

Back when Posada was wearing a mask and a catcher's mitt, and not packing a first baseman's glove in the event of an emergency, the proud Yankee might have had something unpleasant to say to Ortiz as he crossed the plate. Maybe Posada and Ortiz would've ended up rolling in the dirt the way one of Posada's heroes, Thurman Munson, once carried on with an antagonist named Carlton Fisk.

But Ortiz got a pass in this 6-4 Red Sox victory, a pass on the Red Sox's way to a first-place divisional tie, and Posada was among the subdued Yankees who claimed he was oblivious to the fact that Boston's Bambino did everything but point to the fences and call his shot.

The unmasked catcher, batting .178 when he arrived at the Stadium on Tuesday night, couldn't summon the smoldering passion that has defined a career postmarked for Monument Park. The last time the Red Sox were in town for a big series, Posada pulled himself from Girardi's lineup rather than bat ninth, setting off Defcon 1 alarms all across the Bronx.

Posada wasn't in any position to light another fire. He was not in the starting lineup, and only appeared in the first inning because Jon Lester crashed a pitch against Mark Teixeira's right knee. More than that, as he closed hard on his 40th birthday, Posada was barely hanging on to a roster spot, and spending all of his energy on the fight for his big league life.

So even on a night when Lester hit two Yankees in the first (Russell Martin also took a shot to the leg), and when Ortiz did what he did in the fifth, the Yankee who would've been voted most likely to escalate a fight (see Pedro Martinez, Fenway Park, a different life) did all of his talking with his bat.

You see, for all of the talk about Derek Jeter's burdens, about the captain's admitted desire to get his 3,000th hit at home, Posada was dealing with real professional pressure, a kind of angst Jeter wouldn't know.

Posada doesn't have two more seasons beyond this one on his contract, with a player option for a third. He has only until the All-Star break, give or take a couple of weeks, to prove he can be a productive member of a winning Yankees team.

If he fails in that pursuit, his distinguished career in pinstripes will end. The Yankees would never release Posada before his best friend's milestone achievement, likely arriving by the end of next week. They don't want to release him at all, in fact, not after he's given them so many years of Thurman-like grit.

But they will do what they have to do if Posada's play forces them to do it, a truth that makes his three hits more meaningful than the two hits Jeter managed in reducing his magic number to 12.

In the third inning, Posada's single off Lester marked his first hit off a lefty this season following 27 failures. In the ninth, batting from the other side against Jonathan Papelbon, Posada roped a two-out RBI single to left to give Alex Rodriguez a chance to tie the game.

A-Rod went down swinging, and meekly. Soon enough Posada was slumped in a chair at his locker, wearing a giant ice pack on his knee and the expression of a man relieved to be batting .195.

"Maybe we should just put him in in the bottom of the first every day," said Girardi, the manager who had tried to bat him ninth.

After Teixeira went down in a heap, believing he might have busted his knee, Posada's concern was replaced by what he called "a little adrenaline rush." Girardi told him to run for Teixeira and to get ready to play first base.

"It's just good to be on the field," Posada said.

He didn't make any errors at first, but didn't leave the ballpark believing he had mastered the position, either.

"It's a challenge," Posada said. "The ball gets hit and all you want to do is get in front of it, to tell you the truth, and get an out. I tried to make it as simple as possible. It's not easy when you don't play it as often."

Nothing is coming easy for Posada in this final year of his deal, almost certainly the final year of his Yankees career. He didn't have a good explanation for why he suddenly looked like the Posada of old Tuesday night, rather than the old Posada.

"The ball was just finding some holes," he said.

Teixeira would pronounce himself lucky that his X-rays were negative, and hopeful that his knee contusion would barely keep him out at all. No, it didn't sound like Teixeira was ready to Wally Pipp himself for Posada's benefit, even as he covered his teammate's back.

"Jorge was great," Teixeira said. "Hopefully that gets him going, because he's a dangerous hitter."

A dangerous hitter in a dangerous situation. On a tense night inside the game's most tense rivalry, nobody felt the heat like Jorge Posada.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."