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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Torch-passing can't wait

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Talk about your short leashes. It looks like Keith Foulke lost his job on the basis of a garbage-time ninth inning Opening Day.

The conventional thinking was that the Red Sox would let Foulkie pitch himself out of the closer role by mid-May. Late April at the earliest. Well, it turns out that the Sox pulled the trigger before the end of their first series. Leading, 2-1, going into the bottom of the ninth last night, manager Terry Francona called for kid gunslinger Jonathan Papelbon to close out the game.

Papelbon came in and blew the Rangers away, getting the side in order, striking out two and needing only 11 pitches. He did not allow a ball out of the infield. It had the feel of watching Tom Brady take over for Drew Bledsoe. And it is sure to fan the flames back home.

All spring, the Sox maintained Foulke still had the job of closer. But in the third game of the year, the first closing situation, Francona went with the raw righty rookie. And there seemed to be some symmetry in having Papelbon pick up his first career save on the same night that Josh Beckett picked up his first Red Sox victory.

The clubhouse was closed a little longer than usual after the win, and when the doors flew open, the manager denied that we'd just seen the passing of the bullpen torch.

''This is by no means an indictment of Foulke," said Francona. ''I think he's going to be brilliant. This is something we had talked about. I would not do something like that without talking to the player. I think Foulke is ready right now to be the guy we need."

Reminded that this makes it look like Papelbon is now the closer, Francona said, ''I don't care what it looks like."

To his credit, Foulke took the high road.

''I could be throwing the ball better and Pap is throwing the ball great," said Foulke, who was a World Series hero in 2004, but stumbled badly in an injury-plagued 2005. ''You just do what you're told."

It's an awkward situation. Foulke makes $7.75 million this year while Papelbon makes $335,400. Foulke had surgery on both of his knees last year and did not pitch much in spring training this year. Papelbon throws much harder and looks like a better option. Foulke came into the ninth inning of a 7-2 game on Opening Day and was hit hard, giving up a run on two hits and a couple of long outs. Now, despite Francona's insistence to the contrary, it looks like Foulke has lost his job without even having a chance to blow a save. It was pretty clear the Sox didn't trust him with Beckett's 2-1 lead last night.

''I can live with myself," said Francona. ''Sometimes you have to do what you think is right."

The manager is always reluctant to anger his veterans, but he's got the security of a contract extension and seems comfortable making a decision that is both difficult and controversial. But it makes sense to anyone who's been watching both pitchers.

''He's the manager of the Boston Red Sox," said Foulke. ''He's not Keith Foulke's dad. He's going to do what he thinks is best for the team. And the kid's been throwing great. Maybe I'm not going to be in the closer role for now, but the Sox won. You'll never see me embarrass myself or holler at teammates or the staff. This situation was handled correctly."

Meanwhile, Papelbon did his best to diffuse the awkward situation.

''I just think of it as us being a bullpen and us being a team," said the rookie. ''Our job is to close ballgames. That's the way I look at it. Not one person is going to do the job."

When the kid was informed that Sox fans will now assume he's the new top gun at the back end of the bullpen, he said, ''I understand that that's going to happen. But to me, I'm just going to go out there whenever Tito gives me the rock. And I'm going to try to do the job. But I know things could be totally different tomorrow."

Papelbon had one save in his three years of professional baseball before last night. He struck out Rod Barajas, got Laynce Nix on a popup, then fanned Brad Wilkerson to end the game. He looked like Dick Radatz.

Good for Francona. The Foulke situation promises to remain awkward until his contract is up, but the best move for the Red Sox at this hour is to give Jonathan Papelbon the baseball when the Sox have a one-run lead in the ninth. That's obvious.

At the end of their tumultuous winter of 2005-06, the Red Sox said they wanted to be more like the Patriots. What we're seeing here is a Belichickian move. No emotion. No concern about contracts. Just go with the best guy. It's bloodless and it's correct.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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