He was armed, ready
Papelbon closes by pushing it to limit
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Jonathan Papelbon faced the most challenging situation he possibly can, “my limit,’’ he called it later. The bases were loaded, and six outs separated him from a save and the Red Sox from a win. He strode from the bullpen in along the left-field line to the mound and told himself, “The coolest guy is going to win.’’
Papelbon built a reputation on his scowls and fist pumps, but those trademarks betray the reason Papelbon thrives in the most demanding circumstances. He relies not on some extra dose of intensity, but on harnessing his routine when it is most tempting to abandon it.
Last night, Papelbon earned his first six-out save of the season in Boston’s 8-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, extricating the Sox from a bases-loaded quandary in the eighth inning and then slamming the door in a dominating ninth. He struck out three, pumping fastballs for strikes and never straying from his standard operation.
“I try not to really get more fired up,’’ Papelbon said, his teeth chattering between sentences because he had just taken a cold bath. “Because when you get pressure situations, the guy that’s always the coolest is going to come out on top.’’
That has been Papelbon for his entire career. Opponents are 3 for 35 against him during his career with the bases loaded, having struck out 18 times. This season, Papelbon has faced 15 batters with the bases loaded. One of them has gotten a hit, a single. Ten have struck out.
“When you get in situations like that, it just boils down to focus,’’ Papelbon said. “It’s just that simple. Not losing your focus.’’
All season, Papelbon has worked out with September in mind. He wants to be at his most durable now. He changed his mechanics to emphasize his legs more and strain his arm less and honed his routine during days of games and after he pitches.
“That’s what you put all the hard work into, to be able to get through nights like tonight,’’ Papelbon said. “It’s just that time of year, you know?’’
When Papelbon started warming up last night, manager Terry Francona assumed he might use Papelbon for four outs. Hideki Okajima ran into misfortune, a walk and four singles, three of which were not hit hard. Still, he allowed two runs and left the bases loaded for Papelbon. Francona felt he had to make a change.
“You get his best stuff in those situations,’’ Francona said. “He’s able to still execute all of his pitches because he throws strikes. He’s really good, but you get the best of him in those situations.’’
Once he entered, Papelbon reminded himself to maintain his typical delivery. Papelbon struck out B.J. Upton on four pitches, the start to a straightforward performance. He would throw 28 pitches. Twenty of them were strikes, and only two were not four-seam fastballs.
After Jason Bartlett lined to center, where Jacoby Ellsbury made a memorable, sliding catch, Papelbon dueled with Carl Crawford for nine pitches. All of them were fastballs, and on the ninth, Crawford flied to left.
“He just came right at the hitters,’’ catcher Victor Martinez said. “Here it comes.’’
Papelbon had just quelled the biggest threat possible in perhaps the biggest game of the season. He walked off the field slowly, his eyes tight and peering straight ahead. He had work left.
“I think he was more impressive in the ninth,’’ said starter Jon Lester.
Ben Zobrist lined out, and then Papelbon struck out Evan Longoria looking and Carlos Pena on three pitches. Papelbon had pitched two innings or more in several appearances, but for the first time he finished off a two-inning save in the regular season.
“The eighth inning stands out more because of the jam he was in,’’ Lester said. “But the ninth inning, he blew them away. He dominated that ninth inning. And that’s vintage Papelbon. It’s nice having him on our side. He’s definitely not a guy I would enjoy facing.’’
Adam Kilgore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.