When we were kids, the late Dick Radatz had that larger-than-life quality, much like Jonathan Papelbon has now, except that he often would pitch multiple innings, eventually burning out from overuse. Papelbon has that "Monster" presence, but he pitches for the defending world champion while Radatz pitched for woeful Sox teams.
Lots of things have changed since Radatz's day. Paplebon gets to do funny Dunkin' Donuts commercials and his legend has grown after his dog ate the ball with which he struck out the Rockies' Seth Smith for the final out of the 2007 World Series.
The Red Sox have this amazing weapon at the end of games that very few teams can match.
Every closer has his peaks and valleys. J.J. Putz in Seattle was as good as anyone last season, but he's been mortal since he returned from the disabled list April 22. Future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman has been struggling. The once-great Eric Gagne has blown five saves in Milwaukee as his career spirals downward. Kerry Wood has struggled lately for the Cubs.
The Yankees' Mariano Rivera has pitched as well as ever and is everything Papelbon wants to be long-term. Joba Chamberlain has the chance to be everything Papelbon is except Hank Steinbrenner wants him in the starting rotation. Message to Hank: remember that the Red Sox had the same idea for Papelbon and they are sooo happy they changed their minds before the 2007 season.
"I think I'm at the peak," said Papelbon after retiring four batters yesterday to preserve a 7-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. "I just feel that I know my body more and more and what I'm capable of. My radar readings are up [he was clocked at 99 miles per hour in a game last week] and it's because I just feel stronger than I've ever felt. It's amazing what my program has been able to do for me. I stick to it. I'm really committed to it and it has helped me stay strong."
Yet even yesterday Papelbon was not throwing 99. He was throwing more like 94 or 95, because that's all he had to throw. He has come to realize he can retire certain hitters by taking something off or by locating. He can fool hitters with his split or his changeup.
"He's got that special thing," said Sean Casey, who faced Papelbon as a Tiger. "All the great ones have it, that little explosion right at the end of the pitch that you say, 'Oh, my God.' That's what he's got. When I played in Cincinnati, Eric Gagne had that with the Dodgers. He had that explosive off-the-charts fastball that just was so nasty.
"There aren't many guys in the game who have it. Mariano Rivera has it. Gagne used to have it. Trevor Hoffman had the changeup, but he had it. Pap is one of those guys when you're on the other side as a team you just say to yourself, 'Oh gee, why did we let it come to this? Why didn't we get more runs on the board because now we've got to come back against this guy.' It's really mental as much as anything. You know when he comes into the game you're gonna have to have the at-bat of your life."
And in a long, drawn out affair yesterday at Fenway, the Rays just didn't have it in them.
Papelbon came on with two outs in the eighth after Eric Hinske had reached on a bunt single against Hideki Okajima. This was Papelbon's fourth stint of having to get four outs this season, as many as all of last season, perhaps a sign of Papelbon's increased strength and the well-being of his shoulder.
He got pinch hitter Dioner Navarro to ground out to end the inning. He sat for a while as the Sox scored two more runs to make it 7-3, then got ground-ball outs from Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, and Carl Crawford. Sometimes making contact is almost a victory for the opposition, but the fact is Papelbon didn't need to rear back and throw it through Jason Varitek's mitt. He knew what he needed to get the job done.
The result was his ninth save in as many chances. He has gone 13 appearances without walking a batter. The last guy he walked was Oakland's Daric Barton - in Japan March 25. The whole league is talking about him. In New York recently, Derek Jeter said, "He's as good as there is in the game right now." Alex Rodriguez nodded in agreement.
"I feel that," said Papelbon about his status in the game. "I have a lot of confidence every time I go out there if I do what I'm supposed to do and make sure my mechanics are right. That's one thing that people don't realize I do. I work on my mechanics every day. If I'm doing everything I'm supposed to do, I'm going to throw the ball the way I want to."
He claims there are never thoughts of that shoulder popping out of the socket as it did Sept. 1, 2006. He feels the program has made his shoulder so strong and the Red Sox are so careful about how they use him, that the chances of it happening again are likely slim. Yet when he goes out there for four outs, there are some people in Red Sox Nation who get a little squeamish. How often can he and will he do this? It's already May 4 and he's gotten four outs four times in his last 13 appearances. Last season he got four outs or more four times in 59 appearances.
"I can go longer if Tito wants me to," said Papelbon. "It's certainly a little bit different than just coming in for the ninth. You come in and then you have to sit back down. The key is to stay loose and warm and so I wrap the arm up, and so far I've come back out with no problems at all.
"I think I've just learned so much about myself and my shoulder over the past three years that I'm just to the point where I know what I have to do and how I can do it effectively. I don't have to go full-throttle all the time. I can pitch, too."
Casey is continually amazed by Papelbon's dominance and realizes, "We're looking at one of the most special closers in a long time. In today's game, knowing you've got him coming into a close game, what that does for a team is something you can't really explain.
"It's peace of mind."
Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com.