one for the road...
Papelbon embracing closing role
04/14/2006 7:53 AM ET
By Ian Browne / MLB.com
BOSTON -- Little did Jonathan Papelbon know during his years as a Bulldog -- a Mississippi State Bulldog, that is -- that he was essentially in Basic Training.
Is there a way to prepare for closing games for the Boston Red Sox in an ultra-intense environment amid the backdrop of a packed house just about every night? Perhaps not, but performing last call for Mississippi State, which Papelbon did from 2001-03, is about as good a dress rehearsal as one can get.
Fans take their college baseball seriously at Mississippi State. They pack Dudy Noble Field with some 15,000 hollering fans for just about every game, and that was where Papelbon, who saved 13 games during his college career, first felt Fenway Park-like intensity.
"Very similar to here, the fans expect you to win every time you go out there," Papelbon said. "The fans expect you to be perfect and they're intense and they're behind you at all times and that's a great advantage for you, when you can use that to your advantage."
Much like Mississippi State was at a distinct advantage having Papelbon stifle opponents at the end of games, so have the Red Sox during the early portion of the 2006 season.
He is 25 years old, and has a mere 75 days of Major League service time at his disposal, yet youth seems to only be an ally to Papelbon. The confidence seems to exude from his mind and go right to his right arm every time he throws a pitch.
You might notice Papelbon take a measured breath before a crucial pitch. There is a reason for it.
"I just take a deep breath and exhale and get all the bad thoughts out and try to create some good thoughts and deliver the pitch," said Papelbon.
And that's basically all he's done in his brief Major League career thus far -- deliver again and again.
Papelbon, whose future will likely be as a starting pitcher, began this season as a setup man, a role he performed with uncanny fearlessness in the heat of a pennant race during the final month of the 2005 season.
But when the first save opportunity of the 2006 season presented itself to manager Terry Francona in game 3, the call to the bullpen went to Papelbon instead of Keith Foulke, who is coming off multiple knee surgeries and didn't pitch a lot during Spring Training.
Papelbon took the ball with a 2-1 lead that night in Texas and struck out two of the three batters he faced for his first Major League save. He repeated the feat three more times in eerily similar fashion, hardly blinking at a chore that supposedly comes with so much pressure.
Through his first five outings this season, Papelbon is 4-for-4 in saves and has allowed a grand total of two baserunners (a single and a hit batter) while striking out five.
The Red Sox still don't call him their closer, even though that's what he's effectively been early in the season. But when the bullpen door opens and he runs to the mound with the responsibility of holding a lead, he can feel the adrenaline pumping hard.
"It's intense, it gets me going, it gets me fired up and zoned in with what's going on right then and there," Papelbon said. "It's intense and I like it. I get a thrill out of it."
With his considerable arsenal of pitches and the body to be a workhorse for a decade-plus, the bullpen seems almost certain to be a temporary thing in the body of his career. But Papelbon doesn't worry about what he'll be doing in the future. He knows that in Boston, you have to focus on the here and now.
"I just think of myself as a pitcher helping the team win, that's it," Papelbon said. "Right now, starting isn't even in my mind, I don't really even think about it, to be honest with you."
Just as Papelbon's signature pitch is his fastball -- 95 mph is the most frequent radar-gun reading -- his rise to prominence has been equally swift. Consider that one year ago, he was a prospect, taking his regular turn in the rotation for Double-A Portland and then Triple-A Pawtucket.
And when the Red Sox needed an emergency starter to replace the ailing Wade Miller for a July 31 start against the Twins, Papelbon -- then referred to as Jon Papelbon -- got the call.
Naturally, Papelbon struck out the first two batters he faced that game, though he wound up with no decision.
Ever since then, it seems, he's been on the fast track.
"I think his stuff is obvious but his demeanor -- the game has never sped up on him," said Francona. "That's probably the hardest thing for young guys is, you get in a tight situation, you get in a bind and the game is going quick. He has the ability to compete and not let it get going too fast. I think it's rare, I think it's almost unfair. The reason the game slows down is because guys live through it. He hasn't, but he has a rare ability to do that."
How is it that Papelbon doesn't seem to know anything about fear, even under the most trying of situations?
"I think it's just been instilled in me at a young age, playing Little League at a young age and playing competitive baseball growing up," Papelbon said. "I always wanted to go out there and just give 100 percent and not ever have to look back and say, 'Man, did I give it my all that outing?'"
Nobody has questioned his effort or his stuff since the Red Sox made him a fourth-round selection in the 2003 draft. But it is Papelbon's poise and adaptability that have been certifiable eye-openers.
"The fact that he's managed to continue developing at the big-league level is hard," said Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "Sometimes guys go into sort of survival mode and they stop working on things and they stop getting better and they just sort of figure out a way to survive. He's picked up a two-seamer, he's probably improved his command a little bit, he's locked in his mechanics. That's hard to do, to develop even as you're breaking in to the big leagues, so it's been impressive."
Veterans on the club have noticed Papelbon developing not just from week to week, but pitch to pitch.
Curt Schilling watched with pride last Saturday in Baltimore as Papelbon badly misfired on a splitter to Kevin Millar, only to come back with the same pitch and strike out Millar to end the game.
"You know what? He's something else," Schilling said. "We talked in Spring Training, [and] one of the things I always talk about with young pitchers is the ability to be your own pitching coach and to be able to make adjustments pitch to pitch and nowhere is that more important than being a closer. You can't allow yourself to make multiple bad pitches.
"He threw that first split about 52 feet and I've done it, you overthrow it, you get two strikes and then he turns around and comes back with a fantastic one. And that shows me that he's thinking on the fly and making adjustments. When you can do that, things really start to come together for you. He's locating and that's huge. When you can locate a 95-mph fastball, you can do a lot of things."
Despite the early burst of success, Papelbon has specific things he wants to refine.
"My slider and split go hand-in-hand, I'm working on those," said Papelbon.
As for the Red Sox, they'll just keep giving Papelbon the ball with the game on the line. He's given them no reason not to.
Said Francona: "I told him in [Spring Training] when he first got down there, 'We view you as a starter, [but] it might not happen now. But I guarantee you one thing, you're going to pitch a lot of innings that mean something, meaningful innings.' I think that was probably a pretty correct statement."
But the one making the statement -- more emphatic it seems with each outing -- is Papelbon.
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