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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Papelbon OK with proving self

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mike Timlin made sure that Jonathan Papelbon was assigned a new nickname to go along with his new job: Starter Boy.

With that moniker comes the knowledge that no matter what happened last night in the Red Sox' inaugural spring training game against the Twins, nobody was going to hand No. 58 the ball in the late innings. It's somebody else's worry now to shut the door on games for Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield -- and Papelbon.

You'll have to pardon the kid if the closer pangs linger, particularly as he labors to make the switch back to starter. Can you blame him? Papelbon saved 35 of 41 chances last season, submitted a 0.92 ERA (the lowest of all pitchers with at least 51 innings), and held batters to a .167 average. He was lights-out with electric stuff and became an instant folk hero in a very discerning sports town. He walks away from that role willing to do whatever the team wants, but can't help but note it's an unorthodox decision.

"It is bizarre," Papelbon acknowledged. "I'm not going to deny that. When the guys, the coaches, even the fans are used to seeing somebody do something successfully, it's hard to watch them do something else.

"I have a little bump to get over to prove I'm fine. This is a good thing for me."

Papelbon was forced to shut it down last September when he suffered a "transient subluxation event" in his pitching shoulder, which is an elaborate way of saying his shoulder wore down and slipped out of its normal position. The labrum showed no evidence of tearing, which was a massive relief, but the injury, commonly caused by overuse, gave the front office considerable pause, because there was "some labrum involvement." Tearing your labrum is about the worst possible news for a pitcher. The medical staff determined the routine of a starter made Papelbon less prone to injury.

It was the master plan from the start for the big righthander to be a front-line hurler anyway. Still, after a year's hiatus from that preparation, Papelbon occasionally struggles to exhibit the patience required to stretch him out.

"I'm chomping at the bit," he said. "In my very first meeting with Theo [Epstein] and Tito [Francona], the first thing out of their mouths was, 'We know you're ready to go, but we don't want you throwing 100 pitches right away.' They were a little worried, but they shouldn't be. I'm fine."

To be an effective starter, Papelbon surmises, he'll need to rely on his two-seamer, his curveball, and his slider on a regular basis to complement his filthy rising fastball. According to Inside Edge, last season Papelbon threw fastballs 75 percent of the time, his slider 8 percent, his curveball 1 percent, his changeup 5 percent, and "other" pitches 11 percent.

Obviously he can't rear back and throw fastballs all night (right, Josh Beckett?), which means he'll have to be patient while he reacquaints himself with his other pitches. The potential for early missteps is there but, said pitching coach John Farrell, it shouldn't raise any red flags.

"We've talked about it multiple times," said Farrell. "Jon's very driven. He wants to get out to a 5-0 start. I'm trying to get him away from that thought process and thinking about the execution of the pitch."

For a 26-year-old stud who is in a hurry to be a star, that is a tall order. This is a kid who was so competitive with his brothers that he often broke out in fistfights with them, whether it was over baseball, capture the flag, or tic-tac-toe.

"My father got so sick of it he bought me boxing gloves for Christmas," Papelbon said.

For most of spring training, Papelbon has kept his little brown leather book within reach. Last Sunday night, he was snoozing through the Oscars when he recalled a routine in between innings that worked well for him when he was a starter in Double A. He jumped up, flipped on a light, scribbled some notes into the book, then ran them by Farrell the following morning.

"I'm trying to remember what my routine was," Papelbon said. "It's a kind of like riding a bike. I know I can get back on, but I want to be able to do all the tricks, too."

Papelbon is scheduled to pitch one or two innings Saturday against the Phillies. He's working on a few minor tweaks; he's not breaking his hands at the right time during his windup and he's throwing across his body a little more than he'd like.

"I'll have it all worked out before the end of spring training," he promised.

Does an athlete of his caliber have any doubts about switching roles?

"Of course there's doubt," Papelbon answered. "Doubt is part of the human element, but I'm better than that. I can prove my worth. I can't wait to prove my worth."

Most general managers will tell you they'd rather have a front-line starter than a closer. Of course, that's presuming the GM actually has a reliable reliever who possesses the physical and mental make-up that made Papelbon so tough.

Because there's no indisputable heir apparent at the closer spot, talk of Papelbon popping back into the bullpen will continue indefinitely.

"I could still close and have a healthy season -- no doubt," Papelbon said. "I just have to watch my shoulder."

Told his team has reservations about that scenario, Papelbon retorted, "You know how it is. When you get doctors involved, they've got to talk about every last fiber in your body."

The Red Sox hear Papelbon talk that way, and they cringe just a little. He is young, and he feels invincible, and they want him to stay that way. He has a franchise arm that is worth protecting, even babying a little if necessary.

And yet nobody will rule out the possibility he returns to his old job.

"There are multiple factors that go into being the closer," Farrell said. "One factor will be how Jon performs as a starter."

"I would have closed again without hesitation," Papelbon declared. "I would have said, 'OK, give me a program for my shoulder and let's go.' I could still do that. I'll just get into my zone and say, 'Here's what we're going to do.' "

The Red Sox are pleased that Papelbon has approached his role in the starting rotation with the same vigor.

Starter Boy doesn't care when he gets the ball -- as long as he gets a chance to win.

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

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