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Putz keeps a closer's eye on Papelbon

By Gordon Edes
Globe Staff / June 27, 2007
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SEATTLE -- J.J. Putz had the same reaction as many people this spring when he heard that Jonathan Papelbon planned on becoming a starter.

"I was like, 'Man, why?' " said the Mariners righthander, perhaps the most dominating closer in the American League this season, with 21 saves in 21 chances, a 1.07 ERA, a .135 opponents' batting average and 36 strikeouts and just 6 walks in 33 2/3 innings going into last night.

"So when I heard he was going back to closing," Putz said, "I wasn't surprised at all."

It's a long shot, but it's possible that Putz could keep Papelbon from making a return trip to the All-Star Game. The players' ballot chooses five starters and three relievers, and four AL relievers had more saves than Papelbon's 18 entering play last night: Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels had 27, Putz and Joe Borowski of the Indians had 21, and Bobby Jenks of the White Sox had 19. There's also the question of how much support the players give Mariano Rivera, who is not having an All Star-caliber season but for the last decade has been the best reliever in the AL and arguably the best in the majors.

Putz said he can't imagine Papelbon not being on the team.

"How can you not have that guy on the team?" he said.

This is Putz's first full season as a closer. He took over last May after Eddie Guardado was injured. He'd been a starter for the Mariners but converted to relief. The decision was not a tough one, he said.

"The year I was called up [2003] was the year none of their starters missed a start," he said. "I threw well that spring, and they said, 'Let's try this,' and I went to the pen."

Putz spent the next two seasons setting up for Guardado, though he got his first taste of closing in 2004, when Guardado went on the DL near the end of the season and Putz converted nine straight save opportunities.

"I thought pitching in the eighth inning was pretty exciting," he said, "but the first taste I got of closing, I thought, 'This is where it is.'

"It was a lot of fun. At home, the place is rocking, and on the road, when you get that final out, there's silence. There's no better feeling."

Putz throws both a hard sinker and a 95-mile-an-hour four-seamer, and has added a splitter. The intimidation factor is obvious: He's listed at 6 feet 5 inches, 250 innings.

Putz talked to Red Sox pitcher Joel Pineiro, a former teammate, this offseason about the transition from starter to reliever and the kind of physical preparation a reliever has to have. He said it would surprise him if Papelbon has a recurrence of the shoulder problem that sidelined him last September.

"I don't think he got hurt because he was closing," he said. "I think it's because he'd never closed before and needed to do the kind of shoulder strengthening exercises he did all last winter, because a reliever can't follow a routine the way a starter does."

Manny Ramírez has been voted an All-Star starter for eight consecutive seasons, but in balloting released yesterday, the Sox left fielder has fallen to fourth place after a surge in support for Tigers outfielder Magglio Ordonez. The All-Star starters are scheduled to be announced Sunday afternoon; on-line balloting ends at 11:59 p.m. tomorrow. You can vote at mlb.com.

Ordonez, who began play last night leading the majors in hitting with a .379 average and was third in RBIs in the AL with 68, now ranks second in the voting, behind only Vladi Guerrero of the Angels, who was batting .327 with 69 RBIs. Third was Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners outfielder whose 19-game hitting streak came to an end Monday night against the Sox but who was batting .359, second in the AL.

Ramírez, who went 0 for 4 Monday night to fall to .296 and was given the night off yesterday (Eric Hinske started in left), does not rank among the top 10 in the traditional hitting categories -- batting average, home runs, and RBIs. He's 23d in batting (.296), 25th in HRs (11), and 27th in RBIs (42). He also lags in categories where he has traditionally dominated; he's 16th in on-base percentage (.394) and 17th in slugging percentage (.487).

Ramírez has been an All-Star 10 times; he was selected but did not play on three occasions. The reason he gave for passing last season was soreness in his right knee. Last season, he received the most votes of any AL player, 3,101,161.

The only Sox player who is leading in fan balloting is David Ortiz, who is well ahead at first base. Ramirez could still be voted onto the team by the players, who vote for eight reserve position players, or by MLB and All-Star manager Jim Leyland. Mike Lowell would figure to have a strong chance of being added in the player voting at third, while Josh Beckett is a shoo-in to pitch and Papelbon a strong contender.

Leyland told the Detroit Free-Press he had not decided on a starter.

"Don't ask me if [Justin] Verlander's going to start. Don't ask me if [Josh] Beckett's going to start," Leyland said. "I can tell you, from the bottom of my heart, that I don't know who's going to start."

Julio Lugo, burdened with an 0-for-29 slump, sat last night, with Alex Cora playing short. "He's having such a tough time," manager Terry Francona said. "We're trying to do what's right, and I've got to tell you, that's not the easiest decision all the time. AC played a little bit for Pedroia early in the season when Pedroia was struggling. Now Lugo's going through a stretch where he's having a tough time." The longest 0-fer in the last 50 years by a Sox player is the 0 for 44 Luis Aparicio, a Hall of Famer, had in 1971. Tim Naehring went through an 0 for 39 in 1991 . . . Kevin Youkilis, whose best hope of being an All-Star would appear to be on-line balloting for the 32d man on the club, said he wasn't aware that he'd set a club record for errorless games at first base until informed by club PR chief John Blake. On Monday night, Youkilis played his 120th consecutive game at first without an error, one more than Stuffy McInnis.

John Olerud, the longtime Blue Jay and Mariner who made a cameo with the Sox near the end of his career (2005), threw out the ceremonial first pitch last night. Mike Timlin, his teammate in Toronto, visited Olerud Monday and reported that Olerud's 7-year-old daughter, Jordan, is beginning to walk and also is riding horses as part of her therapy. Jordan was born in August 2000 with a rare syndrome called tri-some 2p, 5p-. She has an extra chromosome and is missing part of her fifth chromosome, a condition that left with her with birth defects that affect almost all of her bodily functions. "We knew right away she had a number of birth defects, that there was something wrong," Olerud once said. "She had trouble feeding, and the food was coming back up, even when she was fed through a nose tube."

Amalie Benjamin of the Globe staff contributed.