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New pitch, same story for Papelbon

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- He threw Jonny Gomes a "slutter." That's what Jonathan Papelbon calls his new pitch -- a combination cut fastball and slider.

The new pitch, as Papelbon was explaining it near his locker, had reporters in stitches.

Kyle Snyder stood behind him, mouthing the words, "Don't print that . . ." But Papelbon was serious. He spoke about how he throws it with his palm out and how he doesn't "pronate through the ball" when he throws it. He was very serious. He said it wasn't a true slider or a cutter because of the angle at which the ball travels.

The language is something out of Dennis Eckersley's vocabulary ("gas," "cheese"), but last night Papelbon became the first Red Sox reliever to record two 30-save seasons.

Papelbon recorded four outs, striking out Gomes in the eighth and fanning two more Devil Rays in the ninth before getting Akinori Iwamura to pop out to end the 8-6 win.

"This was the goal I set for myself," said Papelbon, who had 35 saves last season. "To be a dominant closer year after year . . . I feel like I was meant to be a closer."

You wonder what Papelbon and the Red Sox were thinking in the offseason and spring training. There was concern over Papelbon's shoulder after he suffered a subluxation last Sept. 1, ending his season, but he recovered and built up his arm to ridiculous strength.

He feels so strong that he was able to get four outs with the "slutter," a blazing fastball, and everything in his being.

He was dominant.

The Red Sox have managed him very closely, making sure Papelbon doesn't get overworked, and that handling -- which some would call babying -- has worked wonders. Papelbon feels strong, with no signs of wear and tear. There aren't many closers who feel refreshed in the third week of August. But this one does.

It has to silence those who still believe that Papelbon is better suited to be a starter.

You hear it all the time: "Anyone can be a closer." Or: "Anyone can pitch the ninth inning."

Sometimes it's difficult to disagree, because the ninth inning shouldn't be different from the eighth or the seventh. But it is. Which is why when you look back on the story of the 2007 Red Sox, one of the most significant decisions -- if not the most -- was Terry Francona stepping in to decide that Papelbon was going to be a closer and not a starter.

We've certainly heard different versions of how it went down. Papelbon had an epiphany that he needed to be a closer and not a starter. Yada, yada, yada.

It doesn't really matter now. The fact is, the right decision was made.

"Turn the page" was Papelbon's message to those who believe he's more valuable as a starter.

"I know that's a valid argument," he said. "I'm happy and content with the decision."

Papelbon has given Francona the peace of mind the manager was seeking. He has given his teammates the confidence to know that if they are leading late in the game, the lead will be preserved. Conversely, what Eric Gagné is going through wears a team down.

Papelbon became just the fourth pitcher in major league history to save 30 games in his first two full seasons. Billy Koch did it in his first four years (1999-2002). Kaz Sasaki did it from 2000-02, and Todd Worrell did it from 1986-88, their first three years.

Last night, Papelbon came on with two outs in the eighth to replace Hideki Okajima with Gomes coming up and a runner at first. It was an 8-6 game. He challenged the hard-hitting DH and threw him an 88-mile-per-hour "slutter" to strike him out. He then pitched a scoreless ninth (15 pitches, 11 strikes) to earn his 30th save.

Afterward, he remembered those days in spring training when he was working every few days as a starter and wondering deep down whether this was right. It felt all wrong.

"I was literally dying a slow death," he recalled. "I'm back in a situation where I feel more comfortable. I was meant to be a closer."

He knew that all along. Everyone knew it. But every now and then he needed a reminder. He got one from his old college coach, who recently told him it's the reason he was a closer at Mississippi State and not a starter. He just has the mentality for it. He builds up that head of steam and runs hard out to the mound and visualizes how he's going to get each and every hitter out, and then does it.

He believes he always needs to reinvent himself, which is why he developed a cut fastball to go along with his high heat, split-fingered pitch, and now, well . . . the slutter.

When Gagné came aboard, Papelbon felt threatened for a moment, knowing of his credentials as a closer. But Papelbon was reassured there was no reason to worry. Francona and pitching coach John Farrell made sure he knew that the way he was used would not change. As Gagné has struggled, Papelbon looks like Dick Radatz reincarnated.

It is a reminder of how important closers are. They are special pitchers, in that nothing stands in the way of them ending a ballgame and preserving a lead.

Papelbon said he was told from the moment he went out to the bullpen to warm up that if Gomes came up, he'd be facing him. The Sox have handled Papelbon like this all season. They have informed him up front when he will pitch. Once he's up, they have promised, he will be brought in so as not to waste his arm. He spoke last night of his delivery and how his front side has been stable and staying behind the ball.

"My delivery was sharp," he said.

He spoke about the difference between this season and last, his rookie year, when, he said, "I feel like I have my arms, my legs. I feel I have less headaches.

"Last year was a grind for me. I grinded and grinded until I couldn't grind anymore. Knowing how to take care of myself is really important."

And now he throws a slutter.