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Following another Papelbon failure, Sox forge on

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  June 25, 2010 08:44 AM

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If they ultimately fail, if they fall short and miss the playoffs, rest assured of this: it won’t be because the Red Sox lack the grit. Resiliency is one of the hallmarks of the new-age Red Sox, an organization that remains far removed from their pre-2004 ancestors, no matter how bad things can now get.

The Red Sox won a 13-11 shootout against the Colorado Rockies last night to avoid a three-game sweep, but they had every chance to cave in and lose. The Sox blew leads of 6-2 and 11-8, the latter ultimately evaporating under the watch of suddenly embattled closer Jonathan Papelbon. And yet the Sox rallied and won, the third consecutive time this season that they have followed a Papelbon loss with a win the next day.

And in this case, Papelbon managed to blow a second save in 24 hours before the Sox rebounded to win.

Double jeopardy.

"I’m glad we won. That’s gut-wrenching. A lot happened - a lot of good, some not so good,’’ Red Sox manager Terry Francona told reporters. ``There’s something to be said for persistence.’’

Particularly when the Red Sox appear to be more vulnerable late in games than they have been in quite some time.

Before your fingers jump to the keyboard with the intention of responding to that last remark, slow down. Nobody is suggesting that Papelbon is cooked. The last two nights have marked just the third time in Papelbon’s career that he has blown consecutive save opportunities, the last coming in 2008. But prior to last season, Papelbon had allowed as many as three earned runs in a relief appearance just once in his career. Beginning with last October’s breakdown against the Los Angeles Angels, it has now happened three additional times. Excluding early-season blips – we’re talking in the first few appearances of the season – Papelbon’s in-season ERA as a reliever never has been higher than it is right now.

People aren’t as afraid of the Red Sox closer as they once were, folks, and Papelbon isn’t quite the guy he was. At this rate, he won’t have to waste time comparing himself to Mariano Rivera anymore. This year, Papelbon already has allowed more home runs (six) than in any other season of his career. Over the last two seasons, hits and walks are up while strikeouts are down. The air of invincibility that once surrounded him has been indisputably punctured.

Just how much this ultimately will affect the Red Sox remains to be seen, but, for now, here’s the good news: the Sox are enduring quite well. Earlier this season, when Papelbon blew a game at New York on May 17 as the Red Sox scrambled to find some stability, it felt like a potentially fatal blow. The Sox came out the next night and won just the same, triggering a 32-game stretch during which they went 24-8 and played themselves right back into contention in the American League East. That victory produced a series split with the Yanks and catapulted the Sox into a stretch during which they went 8-0-3 in series.

That unbeaten series record was still intact when the Sox arrived in Colorado on Tuesday.

Over the course of any season, nothing can demoralize a team like repeated failures by a closer and/or the bullpen. Anyone who remembers the 2002 season will vouch for this. The 2002 Red Sox were a team chock full of All-Stars with a pair of 20-game winners, a 40-save closer and the second-best run differential in baseball, having outscored opponents by a whopping 194 runs. They lost the division by 10 games and finished six back in the wildcard race, in part because of a tough competition, in part because of a bullpen that repeatedly blew late leads and completely demoralized the rest of the club. None of that will necessarily show up in the final statistics, but anyone who lived it put the onus of that failure squarely on the shoulders on the relievers.

The good news, for now, is that these Red Sox are showing no such signs of being dispirited. They are more resembling the 2003 edition, which overcame a shaky bullpen to earn the AL wild card. Thus far, the Sox have responded to Papelbon’s failures, in particular, with resounding chutzpah. Following Papelbon’s last three losses, Sox hitters have responded by anchoring wins of 17-8 (over the Angels), 7-6 (over the Yankees) and 13-11 (over the Rockies last night). All of those clubs are playoff hopefuls. All of them have reasonably good pitching. And the Sox have used none of that as an excuse for a losing streak, a critical development in what will likely be a tooth-and-nails fight to the finish in the American League East.

Of course, if Papelbon’s problems persist, there is every chance he would wear down any team.

But so far, in a relatively odd twist, the Red Sox are continuing to succeed in spite of their closer, not because of him.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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