(Understood in the discussion was that a decent starter also commands more money than an elite closer. "I've thought about that," Papelbon says now, "and over my career, what's the difference between $80 million and $100 million? O.K.? Nothing.")
"Go home," Epstein said. "Sleep on it. Wake up again tomorrow. If you still feel the same way, if you really feel like you were born to be a closer, we'll talk to the doctors and see if we can find a way to make this work."
The next morning team doctors and officials began devising the Papelbon Program. It covered two pages and was divided into three parts: how often he could be used, a daily testing program and a custom shoulder-strengthening program. For instance, Francona was not to use Papelbon three days in a row, or even two days in a row if he was coming off a high pitch count. Nor could he use Papelbon the day after he had pitched more than one inning.
The daily testing is the backbone of the program. In December 2005 the Red Sox hired Mike Reinhold as an assistant trainer. Reinhold had been the director of rehab and clinical education at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, home of famed sports orthopedist James Andrews. That means if surgery were ruled out for a patient, Andrews would turn him over to Reinhold to work him back into pitching shape. Reinhold would monitor Papelbon's testing.
EACH DAY, when Papelbon reports to work, he sees Reinhold and estimates the fatigue level of his shoulder on a scale of zero to five, with five being the most tired. Then Reinhold hooks him up to a strength-testing machine that supplements Papelbon's subjective score with an objective measurement of his shoulder strength. A report of the scores is logged along with Papelbon's recent usage patterns and presented to Francona and front-office officials. A summary advisement is included, which might give Francona clearance to use Papelbon aggressively or keep him from using the reliever at all.
As more data gets collected, the Red Sox hope to draw some links between Papelbon's usage and his fatigue. Are four-out saves, for instance, more taxing than working consecutive days? The program has worked so well and kept Papelbon so strong that Boston began loosening the rules in September, allowing Francona to use Papelbon three straight days for the first time this year.
Meanwhile, pitching coach John Farrell reworked Papelbon's delivery and practice habits. Farrell tightened up Papelbon's delivery to eliminate any wasted side-to-side movement, which had caused him to follow through toward the first base side of the mound and put additional strain on his shoulder. "More like a Ferris wheel," Papelbon says of his thrust toward home now, "where I'm coming right at you, and less like a carousel."
The result? Six months into the program, the Red Sox say Papelbon has sailed through the regular season in such good health that they can now increase his workload in the post-season, which could mean more eighth-inning appearances and more work on consecutive days—the Mariano Rivera treatment. Moreover, they are encouraged by the reconfigured postseason schedule, which includes extra off days during the Division and League Championship Series and before the World Series, allowing Papelbon time to rest. Even with a postseason maximum of 19 games, the Sox would still get 13 days off.
The Red Sox might never know what Papelbon could do as a starter, which is fine with him. But they will happily take their 60 innings from him every year. "Thirty years ago you never would have heard of him," Epstein says. "He would have come up, blown out, and that would have been it."
So Papelbon will stick with his program and with his ninth-inning routine, in which he steps off the back of the mound after throwing his warmup pitches, bows his head and says a prayer of thanks.