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Jackie MacMullan

An internal battle

Papelbon can give batters headaches but reveals he also suffers with migraines

Jonathan Papelbon (left) was in a playful mood with David Ortiz Sunday, but it's no fun when he's struck by a migraine. Jonathan Papelbon (left) was in a playful mood with David Ortiz Sunday, but it's no fun when he's struck by a migraine. (DANNY MOLOSHOK/REUTERS)

Jonathan Papelbon stood in the midst of the postgame furor, much of which he perpetuated with his incessant need to spray any and every living creature with champagne, and surveyed the number of young players alongside him who were celebrating the three-game sweep of the Angels in the Division Series.

"Hopefully," he said, pointing to guys with the names "Pedroia," "Delcarmen," and "Ellsbury" on their backs, "this is the beginning of our reign."

None of the young bucks will have more of an impact on the Sox' run at the 2007 World Series than Papelbon, the emotional reliever whose death stare, late-game heat, and fist-pumping histrionics have become trademarks.

At the age of 26, he has established himself as one of dominant young closers in the game, a Sports Illustrated cover boy who submitted a 1.85 ERA during the regular season, allowed lefties to bat just .100 against him, and rang up 37 saves in 40 opportunities.

In fact, only one outing truly stands out as an aberration in a stellar second-year campaign for the big closer. It was on Sept. 14 at home against the Yankees, when the Red Sox began the eighth inning with a 7-2 lead but walked off 8-7 losers when Papelbon allowed two inherited runners and two runners of his own to score.

It was a rare collapse in a pressure situation, and the somber look on the reliever's face as he stalked off the mound was in stark contrast to Papelbon before the game, who seemed unusually wired, even for him. I mentioned this to him recently, and he joked it was because he was "on something."

"I was," he said, quickly adopting a more serious tone. "I was on two different medications for a migraine."

Papelbon said the migraine was so crippling that he spent most of the day at an area hospital receiving treatment.

"When they get really bad, even the slightest amount of noise or light is just brutal," he said. "You just want to curl up in a ball and die."

Papelbon refused to reveal his malady that night, choosing to leave the park without comment. It was only reluctantly that he confirmed his battle with migraines in the euphoria of the Red Sox clubhouse after the sweep of the Angels Sunday.

"You know what? It's the playoffs, and this time of year there is no room for excuses," Papelbon explained. "Nobody wants to hear 'em, and I don't want to give any.

"The migraines are something I cope with and deal with. So many guys are dealing with bumps and bruises this time of year, and the last thing I'm going to talk about is my stuff.

"I get a few of these a year - about four or five a season. I'm learning how to make it easier to pitch through them."

Papelbon said by the time he reached the park on the night of Sept. 14, he felt he could pitch, and lobbied with the coaching staff to allow him to do just that. For a time, it looked as though the Red Sox wouldn't need him, but when Hideki Okajima proved to be ineffective in the eighth, Francona handed the ball to Papelbon with men on second and third and Derek Jeter at the plate, and Boston hanging on to a 7-4 lead.

Papelbon jammed Jeter, who fisted a single to knock in a run. Then Pap gave up a blistering double to Bobby Abreu to score two more runs. He pumped his glove in disgust as Alex Rodriguez drilled a fastball for a single up the middle to give the pinstripes an improbable 8-7 advantage that stuck.

Francona said the team was aware of his reliever's headaches during the day, but by the time Papelbon arrived at the park, the worst seemed to be over.

"We wouldn't have pitched him if we didn't think he was OK," said Francona. "Obviously, in hindsight, we made the wrong decision.

"Pap wanted to keep it quiet, so I didn't say anything. The truth is there are many more of those types of situations that go on that you never know about."

Papelbon said he's not a big fan of taking any kind of medication, especially on the days he pitches. He said Red Sox personnel have helped by massaging areas around his jaw to relieve some of the tension that triggers the debilitating migraines.

"It's all about pressure points," he said. "We have some great guys here who have been helping me with some treatments, trying to keep me loose.

"I probably shouldn't have pitched that night. I didn't feel right. I never even went back and looked at that game. I knew it was bad. I knew I blew it. I took it with a grain of salt and moved on. That's how I'm going to be successful."

Papelbon has not given up a hit yet in the postseason, but he was only called upon for 1 1/3 innings of work against the Angels, who struggled to score the entire series. He expects his workload to pick up significantly in the next round.

"I feel so much stronger than I did a year ago," he said. "I complained about this program they had me on for my shoulder, but it worked. I'm feeling as strong as I did at the beginning of the season."

He was omnipresent during the postgame celebration Sunday, dousing everyone from David Ortiz to owner John Henry to unsuspecting reporters with bottles and bottles of bubbly.

Papelbon's sophomoric high jinks sometimes draw exasperated eye-rolling from grizzled veterans, but Francona said he remains one of the most popular players on the roster.

"He's very young," the manager said, "and he's very enthusiastic. He's a kind of lovable, free-spirited guy. Sometimes he might go a little overboard . . . but when he's on the mound, he is just getting stronger and stronger. We feel very good about him."

At last check, Papelbon is feeling quite good in return.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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