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Bob Ryan

Papelbon says case closed

So I said, "OK, Jon, what do you really want to do? Start or relieve?"

The date was Jan. 28, 2007. We were seated next to each other at the Brockton Rox banquet. He had crash-landed in from Florida or somewhere in the middle of January, in the heart of a New England winter, with no coat. I mean, not even a windbreaker. Ah, these crazy kids.

"I'll tell you," he said. "I was signed as a starter. I've always been a starter. And that's what I want to be."

Thus did Jonathan Papelbon outline his plan for 2007, and I swear every word of it is true.

About six weeks later, Jonathan Papelbon became the Red Sox' Closer for Life.

You know, sometimes Plan B is pretty good, too.

"We're nowhere without him in the bullpen," says Terry Francona. "We're in trouble."

Every team still playing October baseball is at least fairly happy with the man designated to protect a ninth- inning lead, but the numbers leave little doubt about which one is the best of the bunch.

The Yankees' Mariano Rivera has yielded 68 hits in 71 1/3 innings. Cleveland's Joe Borowski has surrendered more hits (77) than he has innings pitched (65 2/3), and he has blown eight saves. Ryan Dempster of the Cubs is 2-7 with a 4.73 ERA, and converted starter Brett Myers of Philadelphia has given up nine homers in 68 2/3 innings. Arizona's Jose Valverde has blown seven saves. Even the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez, the great K-Rod, has had his shaky moments. His WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) is significantly higher (1.25) than Papelbon's (0.77).

There was but one closer in all of baseball whose numbers exceeded Jonathan Papelbon's. That was Seattle's J.J. Putz (37 hits in 71 2/3 IP, 82 K's, 13 walks, 0.70 WHIP). But he's home watching now.

The guys left can all save games, and most of them will save more games before the playoffs are over. Numbers aren't everything, even though Papelbon has those (37 saves, 1.85 ERA, strikeout-to-walk ratio of 84-15, .146 opponents' batting average). Numbers can't measure heart, savvy, and competitiveness. But Jonathan Papelbon has those things, too. Plus, he's got the fastball.

So how did we get here from there? Did I hear what I heard on that cold January night? Or was I having a spell?

"I did declare a desire to be a starter," Papelbon acknowledges.

Well?

My theory was that Papelbon watched the audition for closers the Red Sox were having in Fort Myers, Fla., and decided he couldn't stand it any longer. I wanted to believe that Papelbon believed that if he didn't take the job, the team wasn't going to win. Period.

"That's a good question, but the truth is I did this because it was really what I wanted to do," he says. "It was a question of what would be best for me over the next 10 years, as well as the team. I saw a situation where I could really help out. Now what I wanted was what everybody told me I should be. I was doing something that would make me happy, and, at the same time, help the ball club. But no one person was going to decide."

Now we're getting somewhere. As much as Papelbon may have wanted to be the closer, he was never going to have the final say.

Remember what the Red Sox were saying last fall? Papelbon was going to start in 2007 because starting was safer. They thought Papelbon would have a better chance of maintaining long-term shoulder health as a well-monitored starter than as a well-monitored closer. That was the medical opinion Theo Epstein was getting. However . . .

"When Pap suffered the sublaxation from cuff fatigue last Sept. 1," explains Epstein, "our medical staff determined the best way to keep him healthy thereafter was to use him as a starter. The goal was to use the four days between starts to rest and strengthen the shoulder to avoid a recurrence."

Papelbon was put on an offseason program. It appears to have worked.

"Papelbon had a remarkable offseason in which he completely rehabilitated his shoulder," Theo reports. " 'Rehabilitation' is probably not strong enough; he built himself a new and improved shoulder through hard work. When we examined him in spring training, he had one of the two strongest and most balanced shoulders in camp."

So the wheels were turning again. Start him or close him?

"We stayed the course to try to get an apples-to-apples comparison," Epstein says. "In other words, what kind of starter was Papelbon going to be? A No. 4? A No. 1? Ultimately, he would have needed to be a top-of-the-rotation-caliber starter to be as valuable as he is when closing. When he felt 'out of his skin' as a starter in mid-March and wanted to return to the pen, that closed the door on the experiment. You can't be a successful starter if you feel you were born to be a closer."

I still think I was on to something. The audition was going poorly. Papelbon was feeling much, much better. Each side was looking for a sign from the other. One day in March, things simply fell into place.

The timing was pure bliss. There was plenty of time for Papelbon, Francona, and new pitching coach John Farrell to prepare for the season. "The early move allowed us to avoid the messiness of an in-season move," Epstein says. "From there, we all sat down with the medical staff and developed a three-pronged program to keep Pap strong and healthy in the closer's role. Pap, Tito, John Farrell, and the medical staff have done a great job of adhering to the program, and Pap is probably stronger than he's ever been. He's a special pitcher and a special guy to have in a Red Sox uniform."

OK, kid. Any chance you're going to change your mind?

"Hell, no," he thunders. "Starting doesn't whet my whistle any longer."

This time there's a lot more than one witness.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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