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JACKIE MACMULLAN

So far, Papelbon is eating this up

The kid was hungry yesterday afternoon, so he did what he has done numerous times since joining the Red Sox: He popped into a local eatery for lunch.

''I went to Game On," Jonathan Papelbon reported. ''People kept asking me to join them at their table. I had to keep saying, 'Thanks, but no. I'm just going to have a cup of clam chowder and get out of here.' "

Last September, when he was merely one of many in a pool of young callups oozing promise, Papelbon dined at Game On on a regular basis, dutifully removing his cap and eating his chowder in anonymity.

That was before he hitched up his baseball trousers and punched out seven saves in seven chances, before he catapulted himself into instant stardom in this fickle baseball vortex.

There will be no more quiet, uninterrupted meals. Papelbon has been told by his veteran locker mates to buckle up and hold on tight. The ride of his young professional life is in full throttle, like one of those scary yet thrilling carnival contraptions that spin you upside-down and twirl you around and jolt you as high as the treetops, then send you spiraling into a nose dive. It can be a jarring experience, being a pitcher in this town, so you'd better hope the nuts and the bolts are screwed on tight enough to survive any sudden drops.

The best advice anyone can give him: don't look down.

That, in essence, is what Curt Schilling told Papelbon after the youngster closed out last night's 7-4 win over Tampa Bay.

The kid jogged out of the bullpen in the ninth to a sea of flashbulbs and preserved his glittering 0.00 ERA, but it was hardly a routine outing. After dispatching Joey Gathright on three pitches (including a 95-miles-per-hour fastball on strike three), Papelbon gave up just his third hit of a season, a Carl Crawford single.

He needed nine pitches to finish off Jorge Cantu (another strikeout, another fastball, this time clocked at 96), and threw 10 more pitches to Travis Lee before walking him on a fastball that just missed the corner.

''Our scouting report told us they were good hitters in the zone, so I was nibbling a little bit," Papelbon revealed.

For the first time in his brief Red Sox career, Papelbon actually looked mildly flustered after walking Jonny Gomes on five pitches to load the bases.

''He was overthrowing," said Schilling. ''That correlates into a short splitter and a high fastball."

After Papelbon fell behind, 0-and-2, Damon Hollins whacked one of those high heaters to center field. Adam Stern charged the ball, dived, and scooped up the snowcone catch to end it.

''If that ball gets past Stern, they might win that ballgame," Papelbon mused. ''They might have all come across.

''I've got a really big gambling debt with Stern. He owns me right now."

Papelpon knows he won't be the hero every single night. And yet we continue to buy into the strapping righty because his stuff is electric and his demeanor is disarmingly deadpan on the mound. In the clubhouse, he is earnest but not syrupy, confident yet not arrogant. In discussing his accomplishments, he has not once lapsed into the third person (or, for that matter, willed himself invisible).

There hasn't been this much excitement about a pitching prospect since Roger Clemens, the man Papelbon says he's patterned his game after, the man who also experienced the dizzying heights of being a beloved young star in Boston.

By the time Clemens left town, it was to mixed reviews. The idea that anyone would feel anything but adoration for Clemens was unfathomable in 1986, when he was young and invincible.

Clemens made some mistakes, both on and off the field, and Papelbon probably will, too. Any other comparisons between the two are premature.

''It can get crazy around here," said pitching coach Al Nipper. ''But I think Jonathan has the temperament to handle it. Even if he has a few hiccups, the pressure's not going to bother him."

How can you be so sure?

''From watching him," Nipper said. ''He takes a lot of static from these guys, because he's so young. Most guys get flustered by that stuff. He doesn't. He just rolls with it."

Count me among those who believe this kid has the mind-set to shake off any negative karma before doubt has a chance to worm its way inside his head. He seems to have ''it" -- that intangible mix of maturity and self-discipline. But then, I would be guessing, since all I have seen is a 25-year-old who mows everyone down he sees.

''The truth is, you don't really know until something happens," said Tim Wakefield. ''It's easy when things are going great. The time you see the true character is when it goes bad.

''I think he has the right makeup for it. He's respectful. He works hard. He's a good kid."

''There is so much going on at once," said Papelbon, ''and if you're not careful, the game speeds up on you very quickly. The guys remind me of that all the time."

The kid has been inundated with advice from a staff of old timers. Wakefield, David Wells, and Schilling (no truth to the rumor he's taken out adoption papers) have shared their wisdom.

''These guys have tried to prepare me for anything that comes my way," Papelbon said. ''Not just pitching, but the travel, and the demands -- and, of course, to make sure I keep enough beer on the bus."

He need look no further than last night to realize how fleeting dominance can be.

''Here's the thing," Schilling explained. ''He got the first hitter out. As a closer, that changes the dynamics of the inning. It changes you mentally."

The closer conceded that his slider was off, his splitter was short, and his fastball, while powerful, was not locating the way he'd like.

''The way I look at it is I go away with a learning experience without having to pay for it," Papelbon said. ''When you have to bear down like that, you learn a lot more about the game -- and yourself."

It's all about delivering. Papelbon has done it as a reliever, and may be asked to do it as a starter before the year is out.

It has likely cost him his favorite lunchtime destination, but no matter. There's plenty of good chowder in this town.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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