CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Case closed. The Red Sox have a closer, and if Jonathan Papelbon has his way, he'll be making last call for at least the next 10 years.
According to the principals, the Red Sox determined that closing no longer posed the same medical risk it did when they announced last fall that Papelbon would be a starter, at about the time Papelbon decided he could no longer suppress his desire to take the ball in the ninth inning rather than in the first. So he goes to the back end of the bullpen, with Julian Tavarez installed as the No. 5 starter.
Three nights ago, Papelbon made his feelings known first to team captain Jason Varitek, then to manager Terry Francona, who had gone to great lengths to discourage speculation that this would happen but yesterday acknowledged he'd been harboring the hope all along that this is how it would all play out.
"I felt that there was always that feeling deep down in my heart that I wanted to close," Papelbon said in the visiting manager's office at Brighthouse Field, where he and Francona confirmed the speculation that had run rampant from the moment ESPN pointed its cameras at the Sox and Phillies as they played to a 4-4 tie here yesterday.
Long before the manager and 26-year-old pitcher made it official, Curt Schilling had weighed in on his blog. (He also called Francona on his Blackberry while he and Papelbon were meeting with reporters, prompting Francona to show the caller ID and say, "Anyone want to talk to the general manager?")
"For me, it just kept getting at me and getting at me until finally I went to our captain one day and I said, 'Tek, I'm not sleeping good at night. I've got to do something about it,' " Papelbon said. "Basically I told him, 'Man, I think I want to close, that's what I want to do.'
"Tito happened to be walking by. We came in and I told Tito, 'If you want to give me the ball in the ninth inning, I want it,' and that's basically it."
By happy coincidence, Papelbon's wish to remain in the role in which he had few peers last season (a club rookie-record 35 saves, 0.92 ERA) dovetailed nicely with the fact that none of the candidates the Sox had auditioned seemed equal to the part. Mike Timlin is hurt, Joel Pineiro is still searching for a consistent arm slot, and everyone else -- including Brendan Donnelly, J.C. Romero, and Tavarez -- was better suited for other assignments.
Those connected to the Re elect Papelbon Closer campaign insist the current unstable state of the pen -- and a futile search elsewhere for help -- did not factor into this decision.
"We would be beyond foolhardy to make a decision like this based on our short-term needs," general manager Theo Epstein said during a conference call. "This decision was based on what's best for Jonathan Papelbon over the next 10 years."
Papelbon, who was urged by Epstein after his meeting with Francona to go home, talk to his wife, and "sleep on it" -- unintentionally humorous advice to someone suffering from insomnia -- was just as emphatic in asserting he wasn't swayed by any desire to ride to the rescue.
"I'm not in this game to come pitch a couple of years and leave," Papelbon said. "I'm in this thing for the long haul. I sacrifice a lot in my life to play this game. Just to make a decision solely based on one year to me is kind of [foolish]. This is something that I would like to do for the rest of my career and kind of just forget about starting and go out there and chase records and . . . hopefully what [Mariano] Rivera has done for the Yankees, I can do with the Sox."
But what of the Sox' repeated claims that their decision to make Papelbon a starter was driven by concerns for his health, ever since his right shoulder slipped out of its socket last September ( transient subluxation), which was caused by fatigued rotator cuff muscles around the joint? The team took the position that Papelbon would be better served by the structured regimen of a starter -- with four days off between starts -- than by the unpredictable life of a closer.
The company line, as articulated by Epstein, is that Papelbon showed up in February with a "completely rehabilitated and reconstructed shoulder, one of the two or three strongest in camp" as determined by medical tests run on Sox pitchers.
That was the team's first clue that some revisionist thinking might be in order. Equally significant, Epstein and Francona said, was the way Papelbon maintained his velocity in his starts, and how well his shoulder responded.
"Every time he goes down for a side day [between starts], he says, 'I can't believe how good I feel,' " Francona said. "There's been a lot of watching how he bounces back, things like that. He hasn't been crawling to his next start.
"I would never put our ball club's interests ahead of one of our players' health. Can't operate that way. Never have."
Francona said he peppered team medical director Thomas Gill with questions, and came away persuaded that Papelbon's shoulder could withstand the demands of a closer. But no additional medical exam was performed on Papelbon before he was green-lighted to close, Francona said.
The Red Sox, Epstein said, have devised a program for Papelbon's shoulder that will be "every bit as beneficial" for him working out of the pen.
"There will be daily strength and fatigue monitoring, criteria-based rest, and proper strength and conditioning," Epstein said. "It has all been written out, it's well thought out, and it will not be strayed from."
Assistant trainer Mike Reinold supervised Papelbon's strengthening program after he was hurt and will continue to do so.
"This kid will be checked and monitored," Francona said. "There will be days I'll tell him he's not pitching, and he'll do his strength and conditioning exercises. The other manager does not know and you may not know, but that's common sense on our part."
A return to closing, Francona said, will require that Papelbon's workload be managed better. No one is saying that means the days of Papelbon pitching more than an inning at a time are over -- he made 18 such appearances last season. His use, Francona said, will be guided by "common sense and good judgment."
"We went to him deep last year. We went to him early, we went to him often, we went to him with no outs in the eighth," Francona said. "He went sometimes 40, 45, 50 pitches. "If our bullpen is to the point where we have to do that, we're not in a position to win."
Francona noted Papelbon's workload was especially heavy in August, just before he was injured. He threw 259 pitches that month in 12 appearances. Papelbon threw more pitches that month than such premier closers as Rivera (207), Francisco Rodriguez (242), Bobby Jenks (200), and Joe Nathan (167). That's not going to happen again, if Francona is to be believed.
Papelbon, who gave up the tying run yesterday in three innings -- a blown save -- said repeatedly that as much as this was about his shoulder, it was more a matter of the heart.
"My adrenaline is there, my focus is there, my concentration is there, it was just a simple fact that this is something that I felt in my heart that I could do, and I couldn't avoid my feelings," said Papelbon, whose mother, Sheila, gave him a hug outside the clubhouse while his father, John, looked on. "I can't avoid what my heart feels. If I go through this season now knowing what I know about my shoulder and do the things that I'm supposed to be doing as far as my program, my strength, my conditioning, there's no reason why I can't pitch into October. This was a decision that I've made for myself to do and not to go back to starting. This is something that I made the decision to say, 'Hey, this is something I want to do for the next 10, X amount of years, however long I get a chance to do it, and take the ball in the ninth. This is what I want to do for the rest of my career."