Sitting in the Boston bullpen in the top of the eighth inning last night, Mike Timlin focused on the Fenway mound, close to 400 feet away, and the imposing righthander at work. The 39-year-old centered his steely eyes on 24-year-old Jonathan Papelbon and witnessed poise, aggression, and arm action that reminded him of one of baseball's best young throwers.
''I see a little Kerry Wood in him," Timlin said. ''Tonight, he attacked the zone. The first two hitters, he had energy going right through [Jason] Varitek."
Papelbon, on the night of Keith Foulke's activation (Foulke did not pitch), worked a dynamic eighth in last night's 7-4 Red Sox win, walking one while punching out three on fastballs at 94, 94, and 92 miles per hour.
He came back out for the ninth, surrendering two singles, the first on a 1-and-2 hanging splitter, the next on a fastball.
Timlin -- who'd allowed 15 of 27 inherited runners to score this season -- then trotted in to face the 2-3-4 hitters in Tampa Bay's lineup: Carl Crawford, Jorge Cantu, and Aubrey Huff. The matchup was favorable -- Crawford was 2 for 12 lifetime vs. Timlin, Cantu 1 for 7, Huff 4 for 14 -- but the situation was not.
Still, Timlin cut through the Devil Rays in seven pitches, fanning Crawford, forcing Cantu to pop up, and inducing Huff to ground out.
''For me, tonight was more of a redemption night, to come back and prove I'm here to help win and help this team in this playoff race," Papelbon said.
Timlin was more subdued about his evening, contending that he's ''just trying to be a bridge until Foulke is back. He'll be back soon."
However, there remain serious doubts about Foulke's ability to pitch effectively down the stretch. He was rocked for four runs (three earned) on eight hits in three minor league appearances spanning 3 2/3 innings in a Single A league that permits only three players per team older than age 23.
In fact, while the club announced Tuesday that Foulke would be activated two days later, that decision wasn't finalized until Wednesday afternoon, when team officials met with Foulke. As late as Wednesday afternoon, the club was strongly leaning toward sending Foulke out for another rehab appearance, and he, according to a club official, was receptive to either course of action (activation or additional rehab).
Foulke was in uniform last night but a situation that would allow him to pitch -- a significant Sox lead or deficit -- never presented itself. It might prove difficult to get Foulke enough immediate work if the games this weekend are close.
On that day the Sox showed faith in Papelbon, who figures to be needed not only if the Sox make the postseason but to get them there.
Papelbon had made only three previous appearances out of the bullpen in the big leagues: Aug. 25 at Kansas City (2 IP, 2 H, 1 R), Aug. 27 vs. Detroit (1 IP, 4 H, 2 R), and Monday vs. Tampa Bay (1 IP, 2 H, 1 R).
Against the Royals he entered with the Sox trailing, 6-4. Against the Tigers he entered in the sixth inning with Boston ahead, 7-6. (After two pitches, the Sox would be behind, 8-7.) And, Monday against the Devil Rays, he entered with Boston up, 7-1.
The point: He'd never pitched an eighth or ninth inning in the majors with a lead, especially a tight lead.
Is it fair to expect that he can be a significant contributor in that role?
''It's fair to say he could be a serious possibility for that," Timlin said. ''He's got the capacity to do so."
''His role has adjusted along with us having to adjust," manager Terry Francona said. ''Tonight we didn't need [long relief]. We needed outs. That eighth inning was pretty good."
Papelbon had walked off the field after that 1-2-3 eighth inning, coursing with energy and emotion, something in ready supply for the young righthander. His godmother back in New Orleans lost her house and both cars in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. His wedding, planned for Nov. 5 at the New Orleans Ritz, is going to need rescheduling.
And yesterday morning, he went out and got a new cellphone number. He had a 662 number -- that's the area code in northern Mississippi -- but those cell numbers, evidently, are down. Asked if he's worried about his wedding, he said: ''I think it's being selfish. People have lost lives, homes, family. I'm hoping everything turns out good."
His poise, it seems, shouldn't be a problem.