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Papelbon outing may signal end

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / September 6, 2010

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This isn’t the first time this has been written, but it’s probably the last time: Yesterday’s loss was the worst of the Red Sox’ season.

By the end, fans were booing Jonathan Papelbon and then Robert Manuel. A 5-3 ninth-inning lead turned into a 7-5 loss, enabling the White Sox to complete a three-game sweep at Fenway Park and remain very much in the American League Central race.

Papelbon was left in for 48 pitches, the highest total in his career as a reliever. Sox pitchers committed two errors and Papelbon failed to cover second base on a play that might have cost them a run. Manuel walked two batters with the bases loaded after Papelbon’s meltdown, further highlighting what a terribly shallow bullpen Boston has had for most of the season.

Unfortunately, it came on a day when Josh Beckett pitched well for 6 1/3 innings, allowing nine hits, one earned run, two walks, and nine strikeouts. He was supported by signs of life from an offense that managed only two extra-base hits in the doubleheader loss Saturday. Yesterday, the offense finally got big hits — a two-out, two-run double by David Ortiz in the third and a two-run homer by Victor Martinez in the seventh.

“An 0-2 [actually 1-2] walk, and bloop hit and I couldn’t finish the job, basically,’’ said Papelbon. “I mean, you know, I came in throwing the ball well and wasn’t able to execute a few pitches the way I wanted to in there.’’

Entering yesterday, the Red Sox still believed they were in contention for a playoff spot.

That’s why they asked Papelbon to get five outs. If the team felt it was hopelessly gone, it never would let him stay out there for 48 pitches. After Saturday’s double dip and yesterday’s disaster, it’s time to think about next year.

After managing Papelbon’s workload during the year, the Sox usually allow the embattled closer to increase his pitch counts later in the season in order to prepare him for crucial situations and the postseason.

Papelbon came in with one out in the eighth and, after a tough at-bat by pinch hitter Manny Ramirez, he hit his former teammate on the hand with a pitch. He struck out Gordon Beckham and got Juan Pierre to fly out to left field for the final out.

“Pap came out in the eighth with one out, and it’s tough, he did all he could do out there,’’ said Martinez. “I think he wound up throwing 50 pitches. If you want to know how he felt, you got to go ask him, but the ball was coming out of his hand great in the eighth and I think he got a little tired obviously. I don’t think he’s used to throwing over 40 pitches.’’

While Papelbon later disputed he was tired, Martinez noticed a difference from the eighth and ninth innings.

“You can see it. He was throwing 97, 96 [miles per hour in the eighth] and throwing some balls like 93 and 94 [in the ninth]. It was still hard, but he was throwing the ball great in that eighth inning,’’ Martinez said.

The Sox staff had apparently made the decision Papelbon was going to close this out. And as the meltdown started, there wasn’t anyone warming up. After retiring Omar Vizquel for the first out, Alex Rios walked and Andruw Jones struck out looking. Then the bottom fell out. Carlos Quentin doubled to no-man’s land in shallow center, where the infielders and rookie outfielder Ryan Kalish converged but nobody could get to the ball. Quentin raced into second where nobody was covering — and Rios scored. Papelbon should have been at second.

“Yeah, I think he would have been safe regardless,’’ Papelbon said.

Catcher Ramon Castro singled to right-center on a ball Kalish dived for, scoring pinch runner Brent Lillibridge with the tying run.

Kalish can play center, but you wonder whether Jacoby Ellsbury could have had one or both of those balls. Ellsbury plays shallower and might have caught up to the Quentin dunker. We’ll never know. The blown save snapped Papelbon’s streak of 9 2/3 innings of scoreless relief over his last nine appearances.

“I feel fine physically,’’ said Papelbon, who seemed down and dazed after the loss. “I don’t think [it] had anything to do with the amount of pitches . . . I’m not paying attention to anything up there about a pitch count or pitch selection or anything like that. I’m just trying to get outs, and basically just finishing the job. You know, it just didn’t happen.’’

Papelbon repeated the taxing Ramirez at-bat in the eighth had no bearing on what happened in the ninth.

“I don’t think that had anything to do with it,’’ he said. “For me it just boiled down to the end . . . I [gave up] bloop hits and they were able to score a run and a two-out walk and some things like that. And the next thing you know it’s a tie ballgame.’’

Papelbon said it wasn’t fatigue, rather his mechanics got messed up.

“I felt myself get out of my delivery a little bit and didn’t finish some pitches,’’ he said. “It was a long weekend, but, you know, I mean [being] tiring and the Manny at-bat and all that has absolutely nothing to do with anything. It was about my performance today. I think some of it is focus. I’m able to make adjustments out there from pitch to pitch pretty easily. You got to learn how to make adjustments out there.’’

Papelbon didn’t feel sorry for Dustin Richardson and Manuel, who couldn’t get the ball over the plate.

“No, no I don’t feel for them,’’ he said. “Their job is to try and come in and get outs just like everybody else. To sit here and say you feel sorry for them or feel bad that they had to come into that situation, no, I don’t feel sorry for them at all.’’

Papelbon is right. There’s no feeling sorry for anyone, including him.

What’s sorry is the way the Sox are finishing the season. Tampa Bay comes to town tonight for a series that may have meant something once upon a time. Now it means virtually nothing unless the Sox can be spoilers.

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