|J. PAPELBON "No turning back" ( )|
Many, including Papelbon, happy he's back closing
By the time the adrenaline wears off -- "that's the most powerful drug known to man, you know," Jonathan Papelbon says -- it's pushing 3, 4, 5 o'clock in the morning.
"I'm so amped up," Papelbon says. "It takes a lot to come down."
You know, a visitor reminds him, he wouldn't have to worry about sleep deprivation if he'd just stuck with the Red Sox' plan and become a starter, pitching once every five days, with plenty of time for golf in between.
"But that's no fun, you know?" he says. "I was dying a slow death. When I was in spring training, starting every fifth day, I was dying a slow death. Once I got a taste of what it was like last year, closing a lead, there was no turning back."
Fun for Papelbon, his eyes locked in a trancelike stare full of menace and purpose, is whipping a 96-mile-an-hour fastball past Michael Young, one of the best hitters in baseball, the ball popping so loudly in catcher Jason Varitek's glove that manager Terry Francona still heard the sound in his head after Sunday's game was over.
"I told Doug Mirabelli walking in from the bullpen, that was pretty impressive what he did tonight," new Sox reliever Brendan Donnelly said after Papelbon used just 13 pitches to record the final five outs of a 3-2 win over the Texas Rangers. "Young hits a ball to the outfield, we're still playing, and Young is a tough punchout. He's a great hitter. He's not looking to do anything but put the ball in the outfield, and Paps punched him out. A little ol' country boy with a live arm, what are you going to do?"
This afternoon, before the Sox play the Seattle Mariners, Papelbon, 26, will be reintroduced to a Fenway Park crowd seeing the Olde Towne Team for the first time at home in 2007. How does he suppose he'll be received? He smiled a sly smile.
"I don't know, man," he said. "Depends if they want me to close or not."
It all sounds now like somebody's notion of a practical joke, like Theo Epstein getting married at a hot dog stand on Coney Island. Did someone really think the Sox would be better off with Papelbon starting?
"I think it's a great idea to have him back as a closer," David Ortiz said. "I don't know whose idea it was for him to start, but at the end of the game, if you don't have a guy like that who can take over and get everything under control, you're in trouble. You're not going to win games."
So why, then, did Papelbon agree when the Sox came to him after last September's shoulder scare and said they wanted him to start?
"Well, I thought that is what they wanted me to do," he said during the Sox' trip last week. "I had started before, and had had success. But once I got to that closer's role, it was like a new beginning, and it was like, I can't turn this down, you know."
There are legitimate arguments to be made as to whether Papelbon would be more valuable as a 200-innings starter or a 40-saves closer. If you pushed the philosophical envelope of that debate, chances are you'd still find Epstein presenting compelling testimony why the club would be best served, especially in the long run, by Papelbon taking a regular turn in the rotation.
Papelbon and his family figured that's how the season would go, too. Weeks ago, when his parents booked their trip to Texas this past weekend, they made plans to leave on Sunday. They figured their son would be making his first start in either the fourth or fifth game of the season. So they weren't in the stands Sunday night, when Papelbon came out of the bullpen and was so overpowering in squashing a Rangers rally that starter Curt Schilling was moved to say: "You can't understand how unbelievable that is. Until you're on the mound, you can't understand that there are very few guys in the history of the game who can do that, much less right now."
Papelbon struck out Young with a fastball that, like a figure skater's blade, traced an unswerving pattern along the outside corner of the plate.
"The most you could have done with that is maybe foul it off," Young told reporters. "It was a great pitch."
There were runners on the corners at the time. The Rangers were down by a run. That was the second out of the eighth inning. Mark Teixeira, the Rangers' cleanup man, popped out on the next pitch, and Papelbon set down all three batters he faced in the ninth, striking out Hank Blalock and Brad Wilkerson.
What had seemed a very real possibility only moments earlier, when the Rangers had the bases loaded and nobody out, that the Sox were about to waste seven strong innings from Schilling and two home runs by Ortiz, instead became a reprise of what Papelbon did as well as anyone in baseball last season.
This was Papelbon as a rookie: 35 saves, 0.92 ERA (eighth-lowest in major league history among pitchers with at least 50 innings), .167 batting average against (tying a club record), 75 K's in 68 1/3 IP.
"Having an established guy makes you feel confident," second baseman Alex Cora said. "You don't have that doubt about how he's going to react, what will happen. There are no ifs.
"We went through it last year with him. We know what he's capable of doing. I don't want to take anything away from the other guys. At the same time, we were part of that, and we know what he can do. There are no question marks."
"I love you, Dad," Papelbon said.
There's hardly a conversation now, Papelbon says, whether he's talking to his parents or his brothers, Josh and Jeremy, that doesn't end with him telling them he loves them, and vice versa. An already tight family circled the wagons even closer after they nearly lost Jeremy, who developed a staph infection after having knee surgery, and ulcers that wouldn't stop bleeding. Papelbon, who blames the Vioxx that was prescribed to his brother, said Jeremy lost 11 pints of blood.
"Dude, there were six doctors working on him," Papelbon said. "One time, he went into intensive care, got out of it, the ulcers started bleeding again and he went back in a second time. The doctors came out of the emergency room and said, 'We're in the woods pretty thick right now.' Those were his exact words.
"They finally stopped the bleeding, a few days before I made my first exhibition start against the Orioles. I was going to go home, but the doctors told me, 'He's stable, go make your start.' "
That was the game Papelbon, then at Double A, went up and in on Sammy Sosa, and caught the attention of Sox watchers.
No surprise, then, that when making his case to close to Francona, Papelbon first told his wife, Ashley, then called his parents, and his brothers, both of whom are pitching in the minor leagues.
"We kind of understand now what life's all about," Papelbon said, "and whatever problems we have, we have each other's back.
"One time -- I get goose bumps thinking about it -- my dad called me and told me that someone from the local paper, back home in Jacksonville, was interviewing him. The reporter asked him, 'Who's your hero?' And my dad said me. 'My son's my hero.' "
He called his parents and brothers, Papelbon said, not for advice on what to do.
"I made the decision on my own, and as soon as I made the decision, I called my parents and then my brothers," he said. "They talked to me. They said, 'Are you sure you want to do this?' We talked about the pros and the cons like we normally would, then they said, 'Hey, if this is what you want to do, then go out and do it, because you got to find something that's going to make you happy.
"Not too many people can go to work and enjoy what they do."
The concerns that he might break down? Papelbon said he isn't worried, that his shoulder is much stronger than it was last fall, he knows a lot more about what he has to do to keep it that way, and the Sox know a lot more about not overusing him, the way they did last season.
"If I can do something every day and come to the park and be excited about it," Papelbon said, "how can you complain about that?"
Gordon Edes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.