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IS ONE GOOD REASON WHY STARTING PITCHERS TEND to boast the lowest golf
handicaps in baseball. Given that their craft requires four times as much rest
as labor, the bulk of their spring days pass for idylls of the privileged,
blessed by sunshine, 12:15 tee times and the occasional, but leisurely,
interruption of having to stand like sheep in a meadow of outfield grass while
shagging batting practice balls. Last March 20 in Fort Myers, Fla., Jonathan
Papelbon, who had been the Boston Red Sox' closer in 2006 but was newly
reassigned to the species of starting pitcher, stood sheeplike in the outfield,
grazing for batting practice balls when his idyll was shattered by a thought he
could no longer endure.
Replied Francona, "Well, hell yeah!"
See, Papelbon is more wolf than sheep. "On the mound with the ball in his hand and the game on the line," says bullpen coach Gary Tuck, "he is pure rage."
Blue eyes ablaze, ferocity broadcast from his face, Papelbon looks like a man who's armed and has malicious intent, which, given an extraordinary fastball that he swears is a gift from God, is at least partly true. He lives for confrontation, going back to the scuffles that interrupted driveway basketball, trampoline dodgeball or even family dinner (vying to see who'd finish first) when he was growing up in Jacksonville with his twin brothers, Jeremy and Josh, three years his junior and now both minor league pitchers. Why, just two years ago, while getting together over Christmas, the Papelbon boys couldn't complete a game of Yahtzee without a scuffle breaking out.
The high-wire act of being a closer feeds Jonathan's jones for a good fight in the way that starting, with all that waiting and the demands of out-thinking the same hitters three or four times a night, never could. "You play this game because every day you have the chance to kick somebody's ass and win," Papelbon says. "That's what gets my motor going. And when you put me in that situation 30 to 45 times a year? That seals the deal for me."
There was one problem. Before he could save 37 games in 40 chances, before he could lower his career ERA to 1.85—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 (12.96 per nine innings) and before he could establish himself as the ultimate weapon for Boston in October (one win, four saves, no earned runs in seven appearances), 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."
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. 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 the excellent tempo and leg drive in his delivery, and they projected a 225-inning horse to lead the rotation.
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 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.