Late & Great (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday September 25, 2007 9:10AM; Updated: Tuesday September 25, 2007 4:18PM
Then, in a Sept. 1 game against the Blue Jays, while working in a game for a third straight day (and on a pace for 81 innings), Papelbon felt such a terrible, burning sensation in his right shoulder that his first thought was, I'm going to need surgery.
Only he didn't. Papelbon's shoulder had subluxed, a technical term, in this case, for the bone of the upper arm dislodging from its socket in the shoulder. Papelbon's shoulder could be fixed with rest and rehabilitation, but from this episode the Red Sox learned something about Papelbon's physiology that will shape the rest of his career.
Beside his divine fastball, Papelbon is blessed with an unusually strong rotator cuff, the system of four tendons that stabilize the shoulder joint. It is Papelbon's curse, however, to have been born with a structurally compromised labrum. The labrum, which gets its name from the Latin word for "lip," is a ring of fibrous cartilage around the cavity of the shoulder joint where the bone of the upper arm fits. On that September evening Papelbon's rotator cuff, as sturdy as it is, became so fatigued from his workload that it essentially shut down, putting more stress on the labrum than it could handle. With nothing left to hold the shoulder together, the bone popped out of the shoulder socket.
The Red Sox' doctors warned the front office that Papelbon's workload and rest would need to be carefully managed to avoid a recurrence of the subluxation. Translation: He wasn't fit for the day-to-day uncertainties of closing. He would have to start.
"I wasn't crazy about it," Papelbon says. "I did it because it was like a boss telling you, 'This is what you gotta do.' And you think, That's right. This is their investment."
Greek and Roman playwrights had the deus ex machina. In 2006 Francona had Papelbon. The devices worked generally the same way. A playwright could write himself into a corner, putting his protagonist in some sticky entanglement of the plot, and all the writer would need to do is arrange for the intervention of a deus ex machina, or literally, a god from a machine, and an actor playing the god would be lowered by a crane on to the stage. Francona inserted his closer onto the late-inning stage with the same confidence that any predicament would be solved.
With Papelbon medically barred from closing, the Sox no longer had their automatic fix, but Epstein figured he would turn up a closer somewhere before the start of the 2007 season. They are not difficult to find. In the past seven years 15 pitchers have led or co-led the AL or the NL in saves. One month into spring training, however, the Red Sox still didn't have someone who could shut the door in the ninth.
Francona knew his best closer was Papelbon and, despite what the doctors said, hadn't given up hope that his star might yet return to the role. Schilling told Papelbon, "We're a good team, but with you closing, we could win 115 games."
Says Josh Papelbon, "I could tell he wanted to go back because I could tell he missed that excitement and adrenaline. He's an adrenaline junkie, and as a closer you get it every outing."