The utter improbability (absurdity?) of career minor leaguer Kason Gabbard, with major relief from Mike Timlin, muting the mighty bats of the Chicago White Sox in a 1-0 shutout last night was trumped by the news that Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon apparently does not have a major injury to his right shoulder, though it remains uncertain whether Papelbon will pitch again this season.
The Red Sox announced in midgame that Papelbon had a ``transient subluxation event in the setting of a fatigued shoulder," in words attributed to team medical director Thomas Gill.
Don't worry -- manager Terry Francona and Papelbon said they, too, were flummoxed by the terminology, which Gill explained afterward in layman's terms: The ball of the shoulder joint had slipped slightly forward, but not completely out of the joint to the point where it would be considered a dislocation.
``Classically, it's described as a `dead arm' syndrome," Gill said. ``If you remember when Papelbon came off the mound, he came and dropped his arm and kind of shook it. That's a classic symptom of someone who's had it. That's called a dead arm for the slight slippage."
The relief was transparent on the face of Papelbon, who yesterday was administered an arthrogram MRI, in which dye was injected and pictures taken, none of which showed any tears in the labrum or rotator cuff, the injuries pitchers most dread. The labrum is the fibrous ring of cartilage attached to the rim of the shoulder, while the rotator cuff is a band of muscles encircling and supporting the shoulder joint.
In one five-year study of 36 pitchers who had been diagnosed with labrum tears, only one returned to his previous level of success.
``No tear," Papelbon said after the game, one in which Gabbard held the White Sox to three hits over seven innings and Timlin, assuming Papelbon's closer role, spun two innings of one-hit relief to send the White Sox to their fifth defeat in six games. ``So I mean, shoot, you can't ask for anything more than that.
``My immediate reaction was, you know, whew, thank the Lord. Labrum tears are pretty tough to come back from."
Asked how the injury had been explained to him, Papelbon groped for words.
``Oh jeez, good question . . . sublux something or other," he said. ``Sublux is some doctor term. They started reeling off all these doctor terms -- subluxation, push it out, and this and that. I tried to pay attention, but obviously I didn't go to school to be a doctor. I heard, `No tear,' and that's basically what I was worried about."
He ultimately admitted to a better understanding of the injury than he'd let on.
``My shoulder basically subluxed out and put pressure on all the ligaments and tendons in that area, which caused that stinger effect which shot down my arm and went to my fingertips," he said. ``Basically, because of fatigue, my shoulder wasn't allowed to hold that capsule in place, and that's why it hit those nerves."
Papelbon, pitching in his third straight game last Friday night, felt pain in the top of the ninth inning against the Blue Jays and left. He has 35 saves, third-most by a rookie in history, his last coming the night before in a four-out effort against the Blue Jays. He is a leading candidate to be American League Rookie of the Year.
``Besides being relieved, I was thrilled," Francona said. ``Transient subluxation. We all know what that is. I thought Pap was under a bridge."
No timetable has been made public for Papelbon's return. A period of rest has been prescribed, followed by strengthening exercises. With the Sox having just 23 games left, it's an open question whether he'll pitch again this season, though Francona said he has every expectation that Papelbon will be healthy, certainly by next spring.
``That's a good way of putting it, that's exactly how I feel," Francona said. ``I'll bet he could pitch in a couple of days if he wanted to, but we're not going to let him. He woke up this morning and said he thought he could probably pitch, which was sort of similar to what happened after that 19-inning game in Chicago [July 9]. That's good news."
Papelbon said he planned to take his time.
``It's just kind of day to day, basically test my strength day in and day out," he said. ``Once we figure my strength is OK and I go back on the mound, we're going to see how I feel once I get off the mound. It's just going to be a day-to-day thing, a slow process. I'm not going to be rushed at all."
Gill acknowledged that the injury can recur but is preventable, he said, by strengthening the muscles in the shoulder.
``How common is subluxation per se?" he said. ``I can't give you a number, but it's not uncommon."
Papelbon's diagnosis was another positive on a day the Sox celebrated the return of David Ortiz to the lineup, though Ortiz, who had been sidelined since Aug. 27 with heart palpitations, struggled in his return, walking in his first at-bat, then fouling out to the catcher and striking out twice.
But the Sox got all the offense they would need in the fourth off Javier Vazquez when Trot Nixon, in his second game back from injury, doubled with one out and scored on Coco Crisp's two-out, ground-ball single through the right side.
The Sox had just one other hit, Alex Gonzalez's third-inning double, as Vazquez set down the last 13 Sox in order.
But Gabbard, who began this season in Double A, recorded his first big-league win by allowing just three hits over seven innings, whiffing a career-high six.
Gabbard was helped by three double plays, the biggest coming in the fourth inning, when Mike Lowell went around the horn with the bases loaded. Lowell also snagged Joe Crede's liner in the sixth and fired it across the diamond to double up Tadahito Iguchi to end a first-and-third, one-out threat.
Gabbard experienced a little tightness in a side muscle, much like the injury that has sidelined Curt Schilling, but Timlin was able to pitch the final two innings, retiring the dangerous Jim Thome on a liner to second to end the game. Thome had been 4 for 8 lifetime against Timlin, including a home run.
``Dougie [Mirabelli] and I talked about it," Timlin said. ``I said, `I want to get 'em all and finish this up.' Thome's a dangerous hitter and he's gotten me before. Tito asked me if I had enough left, and I said, `Yes, I do.' "