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Papelbon is worth the wait

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / April 13, 2008

It took just three pitches, the final one a 96-mile-per-hour fastball that he had waited 2 hours 11 minutes to throw.

Jonathan Papelbon had been up and down and up and down and back up again, a feat that seemed incredible, even as he started to warm up for the third and final time. Then he got on the mound, facing Alex Rodriguez, the hitter who had taken him out of the park for a winning solo home run in the ninth inning last June.

This was just as dramatic. But Rodriguez wasn't the winner, his three-pitch strikeout ending on that fastball to close out an eighth-inning threat. When Papelbon closed out with a 1-2-3 ninth, the Sox had a 4-3 win.

"It was," Jason Varitek said, stopping to smile, "pretty amazing. Because he got hot for the third time, to go out there with that kind of stuff still . . . He accepted a lot for this team. To be able to go out there and do that showed a lot for his teammates and everybody else."

With two out and two men on in the eighth, Melky Cabrera on second base and Bobby Abreu on first, Papelbon was brought in to face Rodriguez. It was, already, the perfect situation for the closer, the one he thrives on, the reason he wanted to close games in the first place. Then the rains came.

The game was delayed for almost an hour before it appeared there might be a window. The grounds crew removed the tarp from the field. Papelbon started throwing in the bullpen. One pitch from his warm-up being complete, the call came into the bullpen. Rains were coming again.

It took another hour, and a lot of cycles on the stationary bike, before Papelbon came back out. This time there were no recalls. It was just Papelbon vs. A-Rod, with the game on the line. Sure, he also came back out for the ninth, striking out Jason Giambi (95-m.p.h. fastball) and Jorge Posada (96) swinging, and getting a grounder to second base from Robinson Cano to end it, but the A-Rod confrontation was the ballgame.

"I definitely had to stay in my right mind-set the entire time, the entire rain delay, for both of them," Papelbon said. "I think that was the biggest test for me of the day, not going out there and locating pitches, it was staying in the moment and keeping my brain and focus on being in the game.

"I just really stayed there the entire game. I never got out of my element or my game intensity. I always felt like I was still on the bench and still in the game."

He labored a bit more in the ninth, Posada forcing eight pitches, and Cano 10. So, after 26 pitches and three warm-up sessions, Papelbon will get a day off today, no matter what happens. Maybe even tomorrow in Cleveland.

It also has earned him even more respect.

"His stuff was phenomenal," manager Terry Francona said. "I'm not sure what's better, his arm or his heart. It was pretty impressive."

Francona had spoken to Papelbon during the delays, monitoring him, reminding him that baseball has a long season. But assistant trainer Mike Reinold said that the delays wouldn't put the pitcher at risk, if he felt good, and it was hard to imagine that Papelbon would ever voluntarily take himself out of such a situation. And he didn't this time.

He said to himself, he recalled later, "This is the ballgame right here," when standing on the mound to face Rodriguez. He knew his team had put him in a position to lock down a win over the Yankees. And that was a spot he was not going to shy away from. It was his moment, and his moment to come through.

"If you were to ask me who I could face every time I come in to get a save, it would be 3-4-5," Papelbon said. "That's why I play this game, to go out there and beat the best."

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

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