ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Jonathan Papelbon, one week ago, was surging toward another untouchable autumn, more infield jigs and magazine covers to come. He allowed zero earned runs from July 21 to Sept. 8, a stretch of 20 1/3 innings that ended with a dominating, four-out save against the Tampa Bay Rays.
In the three outings since, Papelbon blew a save last Tuesday and nearly blew another Sunday, allowing two runs on three hits in each outing. Suddenly, a question replaced the certainty surrounding Boston's closer: What's wrong with Jonathan Papelbon?
Papelbon sat in front of his locker yesterday and defiantly issued his own answer: Nothing.
"I'm very happy," Papelbon said before last night's game. "I'm not worried at all. That's like I said yesterday - I'll let [NESN broadcasters] Tom Caron and Dennis Eckersley worry about it. I'm not worried about it. They seem to be more worried about it than I even am.
"Here's the deal. Here's what everybody - including Tom and all the reporters - [expletive], I'm a human. You know? I'm not a machine. And, [expletive], a machine breaks down sometimes, too.
"So I mean, there's that human factor for error. You're going to be faced with that. I'm going to be faced with that throughout my career and throughout the year."
Papelbon's confidence owes more to strategy than bravado. He has relied on his fastball for more than a month, making efficiency and location his dual aims.
Last Tuesday, pitching for the third consecutive day, he didn't have his typical command, he said. On Sunday, he faced a Blue Jays team that excels at hitting fastballs and may have been prepared for Papelbon's plan.
"It's just making adjustments," Papelbon said. "For the past month, I've thrown 20 scoreless innings basically just going out there and throwing my heater and locating it. Well now, the same teams I did that against, they're making their adjustments on me. I've got to get back and do the same. So I've got to be able to throw my secondary pitches and locate my split and locate my slider.
"No question, that enables me to keep my confidence level high and know that everything is fine. And we've still got a great team."
Papelbon, against whom opponents are batting .414 since Aug. 28, had pitched in five of Boston's last seven games entering last night, including four of the last six. Manager Terry Francona monitors Papelbon's use with care, particularly this late in the year.
"If he was fatigued, he wouldn't be pitching," Francona said. "It's really not a hard decision."
Said Papelbon, "I'm feeling like it's September. Pitching four of the last six days is obviously not, you know, an easy task. But for me, I want to be out there as many times as I can, no question about it."
Papelbon's indifference toward critics, he said, stems from his self-analysis. He found a small measure of solace in his recent struggles, he said, because he improves more after a poor performance than a strong one.
"I'm going to be my hardest critic," Papelbon said. "What you guys write in the paper, and what Dennis Eckersley and Tom Caron want to say, I'm not doing this, I'm not doing that, well, that don't mean [expletive] to me. I'm going to be a lot harder on myself than anybody ever will. I'm going to critique my outings harder than anybody.
"It's all a learning experience for me. There are outings that I'm not so successful, and there are outings when I am successful. The ones that I'm not successful at, that's usually when I learn a lot more. I always take more out of an outing that I'm not going out there, punching 1-2-3. I always learn more from outings that I'm not as dominant than the ones that I am."
Adam Kilgore can be reached at email@example.com.