DETROIT -- Nothing breathes life into a baseball organization more than a young, promising pitcher you can build your franchise around for the next 10 years.
While it still remains to be seen whether Jonathan Papelbon (he said last night that he prefers to be called by his full first name) is that guy, it's hard to argue that he's the best homegrown arm since Roger Clemens, whose quick ascent to the majors in 1984 changed the way the Red Sox organization treated pitching.
Papelbon, who had gone back to Pawtucket to work as a reliever after his July 31 start against the Twins, gave the Sox five innings against the Tigers last night, allowing two runs and six hits, with six strikeouts and two walks (and one hit batter). He left with the game tied, 2-2, after throwing 84 pitches, and his teammates went on to a 10-7 victory in 10 innings.
Manager Terry Francona wanted to make sure Papelbon left the game with confidence rather than on a down note. Plus, he had been stretched out to three innings only once in relief work, so all signs indicated that he pitched enough.
''The second go-around, my nerves were a little bit calmer," said the rook. ''My adrenaline wasn't through the roof like it was the first time. All my feel pitches I was able to feel because I didn't have all that adrenaline pumping through my body."
Even his Louisiana twang sounded a bit Clemensesque.
Papelbon threw between 94 and 96 miles per hour with a very good splitter and slider, and he and Francona agreed that the command of his secondary pitches was the biggest difference between his first start and his second. Still, the fastball is his pitch.
''I think that was the pitch I had to work off of most of the night," said Papelbon, who will be 25 in November. ''For me, that's my repertoire. I have to get ahead with my fastball and then work off of that. For the most part I was able to do that. I let too many leadoff hitters on base. In the long run, I think it kind of hurt me in my pitch count.
''For 3 1/2 weeks now, I've been throwing one inning, two innings here and there in relief at Pawtucket. So I just told myself to keep my team in the game and just go from there. I started to breathe a little bit harder there [in the fifth].
''I let that leadoff hitter on again. I knew I had to do one thing and that was to keep my team in the ballgame."
The excitement that surrounded Clemens's call-up in 1984 was off the charts, and when he put it all together in 1986 with a 24-4 season that included a 20-strikeout game, the organizational pride was immense.
In that era, the Sox desperately needed an infusion of youthful pitching prospects, and got it in Clemens, Bruce Hurst, Bob Ojeda, Al Nipper, and Oil Can Boyd. And they nearly won it all in '86.
But since then, the Sox have produced only a smattering of young pitchers. Aaron Sele and Jeff Suppan were the most notable, but neither had Papelbon's arm strength. Now there appears to be a decent crop making its way up from the bushes.
After last night's game, Francona spoke about Papelbon's ''presence." He throws like a future star, and he has the swagger of a future star.
But this is not to compare Papelbon to Clemens.
At 21, Clemens was throwing in the mid to high 90s with a tremendous north-south curveball and a nasty slider, going 9-4 with a 4.32 ERA for Boston. He won a Cy Young Award at 24 and was a 20-game winner for the second time at 25.
Papelbon was selected in the fourth round of the 2003 draft, when he was considered one of the nation's top closers at Mississippi State. As a starter in the pros, he went 12-7 with a 2.64 ERA at Sarasota last year. This season, he was 5-2 with a 2.48 ERA in 14 starts at Double A Portland before his promotion to Pawtucket.
In his major league debut against the Twins, Papelbon went 5 1/3 innings and allowed four hits and two earned runs. He admittedly had the jitters, walking five, but struck out seven. It left you wanting to see more, as did last night's performance. And after the game, Francona said Papelbon would start Sunday in Anaheim while Wade Miller continues to rehab. At this point it appears Papelbon is here to stay.
After allowing a single to leadoff hitter Placido Polanco in the first inning, Papelbon retired the next three batters, two on strikeouts. He fanned Dmitri Young with a splitter and got him again in the fourth on a high, 94-m.p.h. heater.
He showed the presence that Francona spoke of in the fourth inning when he had runners at second and third with one out after throwing a wild pitch. He fanned Craig Monroe on another nasty split, then reared back for a 96-m.p.h. high fastball that Brandon Inge had no chance to hit.
In the fifth, though, he looked more like a raw rookie. Papelbon allowed an 0-and-2 single to Omar Infante, then hit Vance Wilson with a fastball on the right elbow. After a nice sacrifice bunt by Curtis Granderson, Polanco singled up the middle, scoring both runners to tie the game, 2-2.
To Papelbon's credit, he stopped the bleeding there.
Barring a setback, both Papelbon and Hyde Park's Manny Delcarmen should be fixtures on the Sox staff by next season. First-round pick Craig Hansen could also take a big spot in the bullpen, while lefty Jon Lester, Anibal Sanchez, and Abe Alvarez could be competing for roles in 2006. The Sox pitching staff could look completely different in two years, maybe even resembling the homegrown staff of 1986.
At least that's the hope.