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Last pitch cut the deepest

DETROIT -- He thought, off the bat, it was a sure hit.

Ivan Rodriguez had caught up to a cut fastball left too high and too sweet, sending it to the right side of center field. And as Jonathan Papelbon watched from the mound in the bottom of the 13th inning, the ball hit just inches from the outstretched glove of a diving Coco Crisp. It was his cutter and, therefore, his hit and his loss, 3-2 to the Tigers in a game in which Papelbon lingered in the bullpen for more than four hours before he was summoned.

"The cutter's doing what I want it to do," Papelbon said of the pitch that's far from his best, having only been added to his repertoire within the last month. "It's just I can't be leaving balls up, especially when guys are in scoring position. It's just a matter of it being up. I keep the pitch down, he's either swinging through it or easy ground ball to the right side. But I left it up, so he was able to find a hole in the outfield."

Not a big hole. But big enough to score the first run Papelbon has allowed on the road since last August. That's 21 innings and 19 games since Kansas City scored off him 11 months ago.

But the Red Sox closer had already done just what he couldn't in the situation, hitting Gary Sheffield with his first pitch.

"Just bailed out, didn't stay through my delivery," Papelbon said. "Obviously not what you want to do."

After a fly to right field by Magglio Ordonez, Sheffield took off on a 2-1 pitch to Carlos Guillen, stealing second to put himself in scoring position for the middle of the Tigers' order. "Not an easy task," as manager Terry Francona said. And, though Papelbon got Guillen looking at a 97-mile-per-hour fastball for strike three, there was still Rodriguez. Not exactly a gimme hitter, though he had gone 0 for 4 with two strikeouts in his career against Papelbon.

So, in that moment, is the pressure on the pitcher?

"You've got to look at it this way, they're the ones that want to score," said Mike Timlin, who had pitched 1 1/3 innings, starting in the 11th. "They're putting the pressure on. They have to hit the ball. They still have to hit the ball. All you have to do is go out and make your pitches. If you make your pitches, 99 percent of the time you're going to come [out] on top.

"Even the situation at hand, at the end of the game, he still made his pitches. You're talking about major league hitters. Sometimes they make the adjustments. [Rodriguez] did. He hit it in the right spot."

In those few inches between Crisp's glove and the outfield grass. A ball's width, perhaps.

Excellent placement for the man who helped turn the Tigers around. A player who was lauded before the game by his manager, Jim Leyland, as a Hall of Famer.

Papelbon acknowledged that there is something different about coming into a tie game, a rarity for him on the road. Especially after languishing in the bullpen for most of the evening.

"It's not an easy thing when you've got to sit for that many hours and go out there and be 100 percent and expect to be 100 percent on your game," Papelbon said. "That's just part of the season. You've got to deal with it.

"I've still got to be able to learn how to deal with the situations and come out ahead. Not to say that I'm not, but it's just live and learn, man. It's part of getting experience. Obviously, now, I won't be leaving my cutter up."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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