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There was, however, one problem. Before he could save 36 games in 39 chances (through Sunday), before he could lower his career ERA to 1.65—the second lowest of any pitcher after his first three seasons (minimum: 150 innings)—before he could achieve the best strikeout rate in AL history (13.34 per nine innings) and before he could establish himself as the ultimate weapon for Boston heading into October ("The best closer in baseball," Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi calls him), Papelbon and the Red Sox needed to come up with a plan.
They had to come up with a way to keep his shoulder from breaking apart.
PAPELBON'S NATURAL throwing motion is almost freakishly efficient. Before he releases the ball, his right wrist is bent farther back than most pitchers', keeping his palm under the ball and his fingers entirely behind it. Think of a loaded catapult, with all that stored energy. When the arm comes forward and the wrist—the catapult in this case—releases, the ball comes out of his hand with extraordinary spin. The effect is that his fastball doesn't sink as much as most fastballs in the last five feet to the plate but instead creates the illusion of "hopping," or what hitters call "late life."
A hitter is physically unable to track a 97-mph fastball in its last five feet, relying instead on the stored memory of thousands of pitches to fill in the blanks of its likely path. But Papelbon's fastball appears to leave the expected path and then "disappears." "He's got that four-seam life on his fastball, that little oomph at the end, that you just can't teach," says Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar. "And like that's not enough, he has a devastating splitter. Pap's split is the best in the league."
Though Papelbon closed games at Mississippi State, the Red Sox drafted him in the fourth round in 2003 to be a starter. They saw the fastball; a decent breaking ball they figured would improve; his 6'4", 230-pound frame; and his excellent tempo and leg drive in his delivery, and they projected a 225-inning horse to lead the rotation. "To me there's nothing more valuable than a top-of-the-rotation starter," Red Sox G.M. Theo Epstein says. "How many times do you find a closer off the waiver wire, off the scrap heap, and sign him to incentive-laden deals? Now, how many times does that happen with a Number 1 starter? Never."
Papelbon made it to the big leagues as a starter in 2005 but finished the season in the bullpen. In '06 he made the Opening Day roster as a setup man, but in the third game of the season Francona used him in place of a struggling Keith Foulke. It was May 3 before Papelbon allowed a run and June 26 before he allowed another. Papelbon saved 35 games and worked more than one inning in 18 of his 59 appearances.
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, put-ting 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.