NEW YORK - Veteran Mike Mussina was still perched on the mound in the third inning last night at Yankee Stadium when he caught Manny Ramírez gazing at strike one, then strike two.
The Yankee faithful erupted into uproarious applause, as if Mussina had accomplished some astounding feat by running the count to 0 and 2.
What's with these New Yorkers, anyway? Don't they pay attention?
Don't they understand Ramírez is in midseason form? Don't they realize that when Manny falls behind, 0 and 2, he often behaves as though he has the pitcher right where he wants him? Don't ask me to explain. Logic rarely applies when dissecting the greatness of one of the truly historic hitters of our time. Let's just say No. 24 has repeatedly proven he's impervious to pressure. In fact, he often looks downright placid when he falls behind in the count, like a slumbering rattler just before he stuns his adversary with venomous fervor.
"I don't think much," said Ramírez, following a 7-5 Sox victory that he nearly singlehandedly made possible. "I love my job. I love to compete."
So here's what Manny did last night with that 0-and-2 count. He watched, and waited, while Mussina served up two balls. Then, when Ramírez identified the pitch that interested him, he uncoiled a monster two-run shot over the left-field fence, thereby figuratively thumbing his nose at the 55,088 fans who jeered him moments earlier.
"He gave me a good pitch to drive," the slugger shrugged. "So, I drove it."
His blast staked Sox starter Josh Beckett to a 4-0 lead and added even more fuel to a torrid hitting streak that has left Ramírez among the American League leaders in a plethora of categories.
Now for some full disclosure. Ramírez is actually a lifetime .210 hitter when behind, 0 and 2. But this is already proving to be no ordinary year for Boston's hitting savant. His contract is up, and so are his numbers.
"I don't know why," he said, when asked to explain his prolific start. "I'm just lucky."
There is nothing lucky about what is transpiring. Manny's third-inning homer was his second in as many at-bats. He also cranked a long ball over the outstretched glove of Melky Cabrera (and the center-field fence) in the second, and raised a finger to the sky as he watched his handiwork unfold.
Technically, Manny is not No. 1, but that home run enabled him to pass Yankees legend Lou Gehrig and former Toronto crime dog Fred McGriff for 24th on the career home run list. Ramírez has 495, leaving him nine shy of former Baltimore star Eddie Murray, who is a sitting duck.
Here's what your left fielder has been doing the past couple of weeks. In last night's win, Manny collected 3 hits, 3 RBIs, and scored 3 runs, padding what were already gaudy numbers. Over the last nine games, Ramírez is hitting .441 (15 for 34) with 4 home runs and 12 RBIs. He leads the majors with eight go-ahead RBIs and is atop the AL in extra-base hits with 13.
In fact, even though it's ridiculously premature with a capital P to even discuss such things, the words Triple Crown have crept into the Boston clubhouse.
"You don't want to look at that yet," cautioned first baseman Sean Casey, "but only a handful of guys have a chance at that, and Manny is one of them.
"Guys get on base, and Manny gets up, and you feel, 'Oh, there's a couple of runs for us.' It's amazing. It really is."
No wonder reliever Kyle Farnsworth brushed Ramírez back with a fastball perilously close to his helmet to lead off the seventh. Manny let go of his bat, but held tight to his emotions. He was either smiling or grimacing (how can we really tell?), yet made no move toward the mound. And when he grounded to second for his first out of the night, you would have thought the Yankees won the World Series based on the applause.
Asked if he thought Farnsworth was throwing at him, Ramírez answered, "We hit one of their best players [Alex Rodriguez] on [Wednesday] night. I guess he wants to send a message. He needs to back up his players."
Was he upset by the pitch?
"I just like to compete," he said. "I like the challenge."
There was a time when Ramírez mused that he might like to end his career in his hometown of New York. That seems like a lifetime ago. This year, Manny is a chatty, card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation who wants to stay there forever - provided the price is right, of course.
He's making his case in the early days of this season, all right, and there's one person in particular who must be extremely grateful. David Ortiz suffered through another demoralizing evening at the plate (0 for 5), but the Sox can afford to be patient, because Manny is producing enough for both of them.
"If he doesn't hit, I'm going to hit for him," said Ramírez.
Count Manny among the hitters who will miss Yankee Stadium. He has knocked out 55 career homers in this historic park with the flags and the fences and the championship banners. He completed the brief two-game set with the Yankees 6 for 9 with 4 RBIs.
He's hit a home run at least once here for the past 10 years. Only one player has done it longer - the immortal Al Simmons, who knocked at least one out here each year from 1925-38.
That's one record Manny can't break. The stadium is coming down at season's end. The hitting savant will have to hope his Yankee mojo transfers a few steps across the street to the new digs.
"I don't care," Ramírez said, "I don't play here."
In a perfect Manny universe, he'd face the Pinstripes every night, preferably with Mussina on the mound. He's taken Mussina deep nine times and is batting .478 with 14 homers and 38 RBIs in 33 games against the Yankees the past two years.
"I can't tell you why," he said. "I wish I knew."
He's not the only one.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.