A-Rod slays Sox hopes with one swing

NEW YORK -- With the ball streaking like a comet across the black Bronx night, making Yankee Stadium quake like the old place always did, Alex Rodriguez flipped his bat, shot a look-at-me-now stare into the home dugout, and left this baffling question in his wake:

Why did he ever feel compelled to use "boli" in the first place?

Rodriguez was never a slugger who needed to wage a war of back-room pharmacology. Naturally big and fast, born with an innate ability to get the barrel on the ball, A-Rod didn't have to turn the game of big league baseball into a battle of my underground chemist against yours.

You want evidence? Try this set of circumstances -- Monday night, bottom of the ninth, one out, man on third, wild-eyed Jonathan Papelbon on the mound protecting a 9-7 Boston lead.

Granting A-Rod his presumption of innocence, his right to swear he's not using some undetected potion or pill, Rodriguez proved again why he made a devastating mistake when he chose steroids over his own talent and work ethic.

On Papelbon's very first pitch, A-Rod created a moment that could've been created by only a handful of hitters in the history of the sport. He raged into Papelbon's fastball, crash-landed it on the other side of the Dunkin' Donuts sign in left center, and sent the Red Sox reeling toward an unimagined place.

"Alex can hit it as far as he wants," Boston manager Terry Francona said.

Rodriguez hit it so far, in fact, that it became immediately clear Papelbon wouldn't escape the inning without hemorrhaging some more. The closer proceeded to hit Francisco Cervelli on the second pitch, and surrender the winning homer to Marcus Thames on the first pitch.

"Awesome," Thames called it.

No, Red Sox fans didn't use the same adjective.

They would wake up Tuesday 8.5 games behind the Rays, 6.5 games behind the Yanks. Sure, it's only the middle of May and the 19-20 Red Sox have 123 games to play.

But this game represented a sobering omen. The Red Sox had recovered from a 5-0 first-inning deficit, took the lead in the eighth by blasting Chan Ho (All Over The) Park, and welcomed the appearances of a 2004 ALCS hero (Tim Wakefield) and goat (Javy Vazquez).

Never mind that Wakefield surrendered the epic '03 ALCS Game 7 to an ESPN announcer in Monday night's Yankee Stadium booth, Aaron Boone. Boston was ready to use this game to pump life into its lifeless cause.

On May 17, 2010, the Red Sox were ready to relive Dave Roberts' stolen base, and to do it right here in the Bronx.

Daniel Bard blew away Derek Jeter to close out the eighth, and despite Brett Gardner's leadoff double in the ninth, Papelbon retired Mark Teixeira and remained in fairly good shape.

But then Alex Rodriguez dug his cleats into the dirt.

"He's a weapon," Joe Girardi said. "He's in scoring position, everyone's in scoring position, whenever he walks to the plate."

On cue, the Red Sox closer tried to sneak a chest-high fastball past the Yankees' cleanup man.

"I just wanted to get a good pitch to hit," Rodriguez said.

As always.

"Obviously [Sunday's loss to the Twins] was devastating to us," A-Rod conceded. "But we're at home and we feel like until the last out is collected we've got a chance to win."

Rodriguez started the game as the designated hitter, and he didn't exactly explode out of the box with a couple of ground balls. He would explain that he didn't want to hurt himself, that DHing can leave a third baseman's legs cold. Given A-Rod's intensity and -- once again -- his work ethic, he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, Rodriguez had little trouble running around the bases after his blast made the game a 9-9 proposition. In the dugout, as A-Rod touched them all, Captain Jeter raised his arms in touchdown form.

The Yankees absolutely knew they were going to win. It wasn't a matter of if, but whom.

"One swing can change a game," Rodriguez said.

So Thames was the one who ended it, and A-Rod jumped onto the field with his teammates to celebrate in delirious Williamsport form.

"I think that's the feeling we had all of last year," Rodriguez said. "We like protecting our home court, and we did that."

The Yankees didn't just protect their home court at the start of this two-game series; they allowed Vazquez, of all people, to secure his first 2010 home victory by throwing all of four pitches in his strikeout of Kevin Youkilis.

They also allowed Rodriguez to bask in his 588th career homer, even if his deep-down feelings should be classified as bittersweet.

On the fast track to Mays and Ruth and Aaron, A-Rod is forever linked with McGwire and Sosa and Bonds. He didn't need to become a chemically enhanced superhero, but hey, that was the choice he made.

Rodriguez could've gone down as one of the three, four or five greatest players of all time on a diet of fruits, vegetables and Flintstone vitamins. Monday night, his all-natural dagger through Boston's baseball heart was ample evidence of that.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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