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Papelbon applies tape, and gets back out there

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / February 17, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Whenever Jonathan Papelbon lost his will in the weight room this offseason, he would turn on the television. There, he would watch himself falter and fail, bringing an end to his postseason scoreless streak, the Red Sox’ lead in Game 3 of last season’s American League Division Series, and eventually the Sox’ season.

“I’ve got it on tape and I watched it 100 times in my weight room,’’ Papelbon said yesterday, in his first meeting with the media since allowing three runs to the Angels and taking the blown save and the loss in the game that concluded 2009 for the Red Sox. “I used it as motivation when I was feeling tired and weak. I’d pop it on, and kind of go over and say, ‘There’s still work to be done.’ ’’

That was clear for much of last season, one in which Papelbon tinkered with his delivery and watched his WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) skyrocket, yet still had a 1.85 ERA and 38 saves. He was as dominant as he always had been at times, but he surrounded those moments with far too many baserunners and too much stress, all of which culminated in his final pitches of the year - and ended his stretch of 26 career scoreless postseason innings.

“All good things must come to an end,’’ Papelbon said. “I had a great streak in the postseason and it came to an end. I’m looking forward to starting that streak all over again for another four or five years, hopefully. That’s how I set my goals is to go on streaks. You go on those long streaks and not get in a rut and come out of them quick. That’s what it’s all about for me in my role.’’

Part of the problem in that outing, and throughout last season, stemmed from a repertoire of pitches that has become increasingly limited. In his first few seasons, when Papelbon was setting down the competition at a dominant rate, he relied on both his fastball and his split-fingered fastball. But that went away, and he became predictable. He threw fastballs and more fastballs and even more fastballs, sometimes blowing them past hitters - and sometimes having them blown back past him.

Papelbon believes his biggest need for improvement this season is pitch selection.

“No question,’’ he said, when asked if he had gotten away from the split-finger. “I think when you’re successful at one certain aspect of your game, and mine was being able to locate my fastball towards the end of the season, I tended to really rely on that a lot. And until I got hurt with it, which wasn’t ’til a big part of the season, I went with it. Hindsight’s 20-20 now, but obviously I’m going to take that in consideration and try to be a little bit more selective with my [pitches].

“That’s such a feel pitch. It’s a pitch that you have to throw a lot, just like your curveball, any kind of offspeed pitch. There were times where I was choking down a little bit too much and overthrowing it. Then there were times when I was throwing it perfect.’’

Papelbon said that his changes in mechanics last season, which he worked on throughout the spring and during the season, did not affect his use of the splitter. But he did say it might be easier already having had a year to become comfortable with the changes.

That is especially important to Papelbon because, at least in terms of his contract status, there are no guarantees. Instead of working out a long-term deal to buy out some of his free agent years with the Red Sox, as some of his teammates have done, Papelbon has gone year-to-year. While it has been lucrative, it provides no security, nor does it ensure he will be a member of the team past 2011, after the Sox no longer have him under their control.

“Right now this is the way it’s working out,’’ said Papelbon, who added that the sides didn’t really talk about a multiyear deal in the offseason. “It’s that simple. It’s one year at a time. It’s working out and both sides are happy. Of course I would love to be with Boston for a long time. This is the way it is right now, and I’m happy going one year at time.

“Of course I’d want to stay here for 15 years, but right now one year at a time is the way it’s working and I’m happy and everybody else is happy - so why not?’’

So far, Papelbon hasn’t done much pitching, in contrast to some of his teammates who have thrown off a mound half a dozen times. The 25 pitches he threw yesterday, in fact, marked the first time he had gotten on a mound since that disaster in October.

Not that he’s still dwelling on the experience. After all the reviews of the tape, all the motivation that came from the screenings, Papelbon is ready to move on. He knows his pitching helped hasten the end of the 2009 season, and he’d prefer to avoid a repeat.

“No fan, no media, no coach or anything like that is going to put any more pressure on myself or what I do than my own self,’’ Papelbon said. “They expect to win just like I do. If a fan or anybody is happy the way it ended then something is wrong with them. The whole goal is to come in and try and win a World Series. So if you fall short, why would that be any fulfillment?

“I think everybody feels the way that I would. It ended in a disappointing way. We’ve got to find a way to get it done this year.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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