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Red Sox Notebook

Papelbon willing to let it slide

Added pitch gets positive results

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / May 23, 2009
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When Jonathan Papelbon started throwing a slider, manager Terry Francona told him, "If you're going to lose, don't lose with that."

"Because it was a work in progress," Francona explained yesterday. "It's actually a pretty good pitch right now. It's not just a strike pitch. He's got some depth to it. He's worked hard, and it's given him a different look. There are nights when maybe he doesn't have the [split-finger fastball] that's in and out of the zone, or it's bouncing, he has another pitch to go to and it's been very beneficial."

In Papelbon's outing against Toronto Thursday night, he threw the slider four times in 13 pitches, a high number for a pitcher who tends to rely on his fastball and splitter. But the slider has been progressing since he began working it into his repertoire in spring training 2008. It was a pitch he had thrown as a starter, and it was time to dig it out of retirement.

While he continued to be effective last season, he wasn't as dominant as he had been in 2006 and '07.

"I think that I'm getting back to that form and that power, and being able to maintain that through an entire season," Papelbon said before last night's game against the Mets.

"Adding the slider can keep the hitters off balance and it can keep them from sitting on any particular pitch. Being able to go out there and constantly repeat a delivery and constantly repeat my mechanics is the No. 1 thing for me. If I can do that, then that means my slider is going to be there and I won't have to worry about it.

"I think the feel for it right now and my ability to throw it for a strike when I want to and throw it for a chase pitch is finally where I feel like I needed it to be. Working toward that is key for me because I'm going to need that throughout the stretch run."

Papelbon has converted 16 straight save opportunities dating to last season, and has a 0.95 ERA this year, though his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is uncharacteristically high (1.316).

The ability to mix up his pitches has been key in keeping Papelbon perfect.

"It's opened up my game," Papelbon said. "It's opened up my ability to be able to throw on both sides of the plate with [the slider], and be able to control it. It makes my fastball that much better."

Building blocks
John Smoltz, who pitched three scoreless innings Thursday night for Single A Greenville, is scheduled to start for Double A Portland Tuesday. His third rehab start could also come for Portland.

"The first three you'll probably see [him] just try to build endurance, stamina," Francona said. "We're just trying to get him to build his arm strength and maintain as he progresses, so you won't see him go too fast. At some point he'll probably repeat [a level], just because every pitcher gets to a point where they kind of get dead arm."

Francona said Smoltz topped out at 92 miles per hour Thursday and was consistently 90 to 91.

No right turn
Francona considered using righthanded-hitting Rocco Baldelli last night against lefthander Johan Santana, but decided instead to stick with Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew, both lefthanded batters, in his outfield.

Entering the game, lefties (.226) were actually hitting better than righties (.204) against Santana. Lefties were slugging better as well, .658 to .530 for righties. Ellsbury and Drew each finished with one hit off Santana, who allowed seven overall.

Baldelli is likely to start Monday against Francisco Liriano in a day game after a night of travel to Minnesota.

Hot stuff
Jason Varitek's home run in the second inning was his fourth in five games, each one off a lefthander. He needs one homer to tie Jackie Jensen (170) for 12th on the Sox' all-time list . . . In two games since hitting his first homer of the season, David Ortiz is just 1 for 8, with no walks and one RBI. He struck out three times last night, all against Santana, and grounded into a double play in the fifth . . . Justin Masterson made his first relief appearance since April 14, pitching three innings and allowing one run, three hits, and a walk. He struck out three . . . Last night's game was Francona's 1,500th as a manager (780-720). He is five wins shy of 500 with the Sox . . . The plan is for Jed Lowrie (wrist surgery) to accompany the Sox on their upcoming three-city trip . . . Lefthander Hunter Jones was optioned to Triple A Pawtucket to make room for Daisuke Matsuzaka . . . Ellsbury extended his hitting streak to 17 games with an infield single in the first . . . Mark Kotsay began his rehab assignment last night, going 2 for 3 and playing six innings in right field for Pawtucket . . . According to MLB.com, Mets shortstop Jose Reyes reported his ailing right calf felt worse, but the team insists he is not headed for the disabled list . . . The Sox lost to the Mets for the first time since July 14, 2001, at Shea Stadium.

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