"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."
Meanwhile, there was some concern about how Papelbon would fare as a starter. Would that signature late life on his fastball still be there the second or third time through the lineup? Also, his breaking ball, which he never needed to throw very often as a closer, hadn't improved much since college, and he'd need it as a starting pitcher. The pitch did not come naturally to him. The gift that makes Papelbon such a top fastball pitcher—the ability to keep his right hand behind the ball—gets in the way of his breaking ball, which must be thrown with the hand rotating around the baseball.
Boston had changed its organizational philosophy about breaking balls. Velocity, command, changeups and splitters, the club believed, could be improved with instruction and experience, but the Sox brass had come to regard the ability to spin the ball as innate, like foot speed or height. In draft discussions executives who claim that a college pitcher's mediocre breaking ball can improve to a good one in the majors are now hooted down.
So, on March 20 Francona called Epstein immediately after Papelbon left his office. "You've got to talk to Pap!"
Epstein quickly met with Papelbon, who told him, "I woke up this morning and realized I'm a closer."
"If I were you," Epstein replied, "I'd want to start. The first thing is, the doctors said the best thing for you is to start. I also think you can do it. Obviously, you're going to be better as a closer than as a starter, but there aren't that many good starters out there."