The sight had become so painfully familiar to Red Sox fans. The vision of Mark Bellhorn walking back to the dugout after striking out. It was a scene repeated 177 times during the regular season. Make that a franchise-record 177 times.
Through it all, as segments of Red Sox Nation seethed, manager Terry Francona showed unwavering support for his second baseman, who did collect career highs in hits (138), walks (88), and RBIs (82).
Calls to remove Bellhorn from the lineup reached a fever pitch after the switch hitter went 1 for 14 with eight strikeouts through the first four games of the American League Championship Series. Francona got defensive when asked if he'd considered bumping Bellhorn in favor of Pokey Reese.
"No," the manager said. "Why? He drove in 80 runs. That's a lot of runs. That's a lot of RBIs. Bellhorn is a very underrated, very underappreciated player. We have more confidence in him than you [reporters] do."
As it turned out, he's better than pretty good. Beginning in Game 6 of the ALCS, Bellhorn went on a memorable three-game run that far outweighs any of his lowlights of the regular season.
The second baseman dunked an opposite-field three-run home run off Jon Lieber to give the Sox an insurmountable 4-0 lead in Curt Schilling's triumphant comeback at the Stadium.
"It's my first time being involved in something like this," said Bellhorn. "Sometimes you try too hard, but my teammates kept pumping me up. For me to do something like this, it's pretty big for me.
In Game 7, Bellhorn added some icing on the cake with a solo home run off Tom Gordon in Boston's 10-3 rout.
On to the World Series and Bellhorn quickly stepped up to answer the call for a hero.
The Sox blew leads of 7-2 and 9-7 in Game 1. Bellhorn ended any thoughts of a third straight extra-inning game at Fenway when he rang a Julian Tavarez slider off Pesky Pole to ensure an 11-9 victory.
"This team has a lot of heart and character," Bellhorn said. "Somehow I think we had the confidence to come back, so we did."
For good measure, Bellhorn rifled a two-run double to give Boston a 4-1 lead en route to a 6-2 victory in Game 2.
Bellhorn was hardly the only infielder to shine in the postseason.
Bill Mueller led all Red Sox hitters with a nifty .429 average (6 for 14) as Boston completed a four-game sweep of the Cardinals, the team he grew up cheering for in Maryland Heights, Mo.
The third baseman started the improbable eight-game winning streak when he whistled a Mariano Rivera cutter back through the box in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the ALCS, plating Dave Roberts with the tying run.
"There's not too many guys who can do that against Mariano," said Sox reliever Curtis Leskanic, who recalled Mueller's walkoff homer off Rivera in the July 24 classic that featured the Jason Varitek-Alex Rodriguez contretemps.
Shortstop Orlando Cabrera arrived at the trading deadline and seemingly became a fan favorite overnight (a home run in his first at-bat didn't hurt) despite the fact that he was replacing a Red Sox legend in Nomar Garciaparra.
"It was kind of tough, not because of Nomar, but because playing for a new team and being a free agent after the season, I wanted to give a good first impression," said Cabrera, whose slick fielding was a welcome sight to Sox fans. "I was trying to do too much every game. I wanted to do just everything, and I realized that it's impossible."
He endeared himself to Red Sox Nation by rapping 11 hits and five RBIs in the memorable ALCS victory over the Yankees.
He also endeared himself to his teammates.
"The ultimate compliment I can give a guy," said Roberts, "is that he is a ballplayer. And Orlando Cabrera is not only a good fielding shortstop, he's a ballplayer."
And now, he's a World Series champion, too.