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Dan Shaughnessy

Closing thought: We’ll miss his zany greatness

Jonathan Papelbon was at the center of many Boston victories, but he walked off a loser in his final appearance as a Red Sox. Jonathan Papelbon was at the center of many Boston victories, but he walked off a loser in his final appearance as a Red Sox. (Photos by Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / November 12, 2011

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I don’t know about you, but I’m going to miss the Big Galoot.

I’ll miss “I’m Shipping Up To Boston,’’ and the fist bump with the burly cop when Jonathan Papelbon would bound out of the Red Sox bullpen. I’ll miss the bulging eyeballs, staring in for the sign under the bill of his cap. I’ll miss the 95-mile-per-hour heater on the black. Most of all, I’ll miss the accountability.

Papelbon signed with the Philadelphia Phillies yesterday for approximately $50 million over four years.

Papelbon was a rare breed in the Red Sox clubhouse, especially in 2011. He was a stand-up guy. He took the criticism head-on. He never complained and he didn’t make excuses. He didn’t say the losses were God’s will, and he didn’t say the manager wasn’t tough enough on the players. He didn’t argue against scoring decisions, and he didn’t shut down with borderline injuries. As far as I know, he didn’t have much of a taste for Popeyes.

He was the goods. He was a lights-out closer who could stand the heat of Boston’s baseball summers. He thrived on the pressure and the Sox are unlikely to find another fireballing free spirit who can deal with the rigors of this marketplace.

Maybe the Sox (still looking for a manager, by the way) will land a capable, bombastic replacement in San Diego’s Heath Bell. Or maybe skittish Daniel Bard will surprise everybody and do the job the way Papelbon did the job. But I doubt it.

In this nuclear winter of discontent, the Sox may come to regret letting Papelbon walk to Broad Street. Committing multiple years to a hard-throwing pitcher is always risky, but this is a good gamble by the Phillies.

The Phils already have one of the top three payrolls in the game. They have great starters in Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. They fill their beautiful ballpark and make the playoffs every season. They always look like they are just a closer away from winning the World Series again. That’s what happened the year that Brad Lidge was unhittable.

Papelbon was a dominant closer for most of his seven seasons with the Red Sox. He made four All-Star teams and compiled 219 saves. He pitched 26 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings in the postseason before the Angels finally cracked him in Game 3 of the 2009 American League Division Series.

When he hurt his shoulder and the Sox put him on a rehab plan, he did his work and came back better than ever. When they asked him to be a starter, he agreed.

But he was always a ninth-inning guy at heart. And as good as Josh Beckett was when the Sox won in 2007, Papelbon was better. Papelbon pitched 10 2/3 scoreless innings over seven appearances in the ’07 championship run. He was the one on the mound when it ended so gloriously at Coors Field in Denver.

A natural in front of the cameras, Papelbon was Cinco Ocho. He was the guy who put the cardboard 12-pack box on his head when the Sox clinched the pennant at home against the Indians in ’07. He was the guy who wore the kilt when he rode the duck boat.

Along with Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Clay Buchholz, he was one of the poster boys of the Theo Epstein administration. Theo and the minions took great pride in the stars they drafted and developed. None was better than Papelbon.

We always thought of him as a flight risk. He never took the hometown discount. He went year to year, toward his free agency. The Sox seemed happy with the arrangement, getting their 35 saves per season, knowing his shoulder could come unhinged at any moment. They were content to get as much out of him as they could while he was here, and they accomplished that goal.

The thinking changed a little bit during Papelbon’s final season. Bard suddenly did not look like closer material. Papelbon continued to throw in the mid-90s, maybe not quite as hard as in the early days but hard enough. His ERA ballooned a little bit in the final days, but he was still better than just about anyone out there (Mariano Rivera will always be the best).

Now he is Papel-gone and it will always be shocking to think about how it ended. On Tuesday night, Sept. 27, Papelbon threw 28 pitches to save the next to last game of the season in Baltimore. He was back on the Camden Yards mound the next night, inheriting a 3-2 lead in the ninth, and striking out the first two batters he faced.

Then came the implosion. Baltimore’s No. 8 hitter, Chris Davis, doubled. No. 9 hitter Nolan Reimold doubled. Sox killer Robert Andino hit a sinking liner to left - a ball that should have been caught by Carl Crawford. But the ball was not caught and the Sox lost. Three minutes later, Evan Longoria homered at Tropicana Field and the Sox were bounced from the playoffs.

In the losers’ clubhouse, Papelbon stood tall, faced the bright lights, and said, “For me to say ‘fatigue’ would be an excuse, and I’m not looking for excuses.’’

It was his last moment with the Red Sox.

The unraveling hasn’t stopped since that fateful night.

Tito. Theo. Now Jonathan Papelbon.

Be careful before you say “good riddance,’’ people. You’re going to miss this guy.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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