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BOB RYAN

Papelbon begins painting -- with broader strokes

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Even in an exhibition game on the first Saturday in March, baseball can still provide you with one of those moments.

It was the third inning of yesterday's game with the Phillies. On the mound for the Red Sox, in his first inning of his new career as a starter, was Jonathan Papelbon. At bat for the Phillies was National League Most Valuable Player Ryan Howard, he of the 58 homers and 149 runs batted in. Papelbon really didn't want to air it out completely, this being his first 2007 outing and all, but there was a little pride at stake in this matchup.

You think perhaps the manager, the pitching coach, the owner, the general manager, the rest of the team, and the fans weren't just a little bit curious to see what Papelbon would have to offer against Howard, who had smashed a long double off starter Tim Wakefield in the first?

So let the record show that Papelbon won the battle, fanning Howard with a proverbial high hard one, a pitch that had all kinds of life. Early, middle, and, yes, as they say around the batting cages, late life.

That's the Jonathan Papelbon everyone hopes to see.

"Actually, that was very exciting," said Sox manager Terry Francona, referring more to the totality of Papelbon's two-inning, four-strikeout stint than the Howard at-bat. "That's the fastball we've come to know and appreciate."

"He's a great guy," Papelbon said of Howard, his vanquished foe. "We've been friends for the last couple of years. He's great for baseball. It's always fun to have a battle like that."

Absent Daisuke Matsuzaka, this would have been the No. 1 story of any normal training camp. A sensational rookie closer is making the switch to starter on a team that is now holding daily auditions to replace him in the pen. There is no way to exaggerate just how good Papelbon was in his first full season in the bigs. He gave up 40 hits in 68 1/3 innings. He had an ERA of 0.92. He converted his first 20 save opportunities, a rookie record. He was named to the American League All-Star team.

And he was shut down with a shoulder problem on Sept. 1.

Over the winter, the decree came down from on high. According to general manager Theo Epstein, the Red Sox' medical people determined that the best way to ensure the long-term health of Papelbon's valuable right shoulder is for him to have the regular routine of a starter rather than the more unstructured one of a closer.

Is this going to bother Papelbon? No.

"I just feel I'm better as a starter," he said. "The reason why this team drafted me in '04 was to be a starter. I'm going to take this opportunity and run with it."

Facts are facts, and Papelbon isn't making it up. He was a full-time starter at both Sarasota and Portland in 2004 and 2005, and he even made three starts for the Red Sox in '05. But he opened some eyes with four scoreless innings in the '05 Division Series against the White Sox, and he began last season as a bullpen insurance policy in case Keith Foulke was finished. It took exactly one failed Foulke outing for Papelbon to become the closer.

He turned out to be a natural, with both the electric stuff and the requisite gunfighter swagger.

But being the closer was answering the call of duty. Now he's back home again, so to speak, and the question was asked: "Can you be dominant as a starter the way you were as a closer?"

"Yeah, I think so," he said, in that charmingly cocky Papelbonian manner. "But dominant as a starter is different than dominant as a closer. As a starter it means getting to the seventh and eighth inning every time. It means rolling through a lineup day after day, week after week."

It also means broadening your repertoire. A closer can be dominant with one pitch (see: Rivera, Mariano). A starter has to offer a bit more.

The way Papelbon sees it, you start your exhibition process with "A," and then work forward.

"For me, my fastball is first, my split is second, my slider is third, and my curve is fourth," he said. "Today, I just wanted to establish my fastball, on both sides of the plate. That's my bread-and-butter. I only threw one curve today, to Aaron Rowand. It was fine, but it was just a get-it-over pitch."

Papelbon is only 26, and he is full of youthful bravado. But he also has been made aware of his pitching mortality. He can never again take his shoulder, or anything else, for granted. If there is extra work to do in order to keep his shoulder healthy enough to pitch, he says he's ready.

"I know that preparation is a huge part of it now," he said. "I know what it will take to be a starter in the big leagues, and, especially, in the American League East. I want to be able to say to the team, 'Hey, I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing.' "

No one had any reason to question his approach yesterday.

"He had pretty good velocity, with pretty good movement, with pretty good location," observed Francona. "That's a nice combination."

He had that combination for one-inning bursts last season. Now he needs it for seven or eight innings. The skipper doesn't want to get too far ahead of the story, but he was practically drooling.

"You saw today how he can throw," said Francona.

Ryan Howard sure did. We know that.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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