THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Dan Shaughnessy

Papelbon reheated for '10

The gruesome end to last season has Jonathan Papelbon ready to make some adjustments in his repertoire. The gruesome end to last season has Jonathan Papelbon ready to make some adjustments in his repertoire. (Yoon S. Byun/The Boston Globe)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / March 5, 2010

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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Red Sox fans are too quick to say goodbye to Jonathan Papelbon. One bad inning, one playoff flameout, and it’s Daniel Bard’s turn to fist-bump the big cop outside the bullpen when the game is on the line in the ninth.

Big mistake.

Papelbon made his first appearance of the 2010 spring season last night. He pitched the third inning, in relief of Josh Beckett, and retired the Twins in order.

It was the first time we’d seen the big galoot since he was pummeled in the final inning of the 2009 season - the one and only hiccup in an illustrious postseason career.

Papelbon acknowledges that this spring is different.

“It’s different than any other spring,’’ he said, “because of the way the season ended last year.’’

The way the season ended.

Hop in the wayback machine and return to Fenway last Oct. 11. The Patriots were in Denver, teeing up a loss to the Broncos, while the Sox looked ready to launch a comeback against the oft-buffeted playoff Angels.

The Sox were down in the series, 2-0, but were set to avert a sweep and get into the Angels’ heads with a Game 3 victory. Boston led, 6-4, in the top of the ninth and Papelbon had two out, nobody aboard, and an 0-and-2 count on No. 9 batter Erick Aybar. Pap came in with another fastball, the same pitch he threw to every batter of the inning, and Aybar smacked it to center for a stayin’ alive single.

Chone Figgins was next. He was 0 for 12 in the series with six strikeouts. Papelbon walked Figgins on a 3-and-2 pitch. Then he surrendered a Wall Ball double to Bobby Abreu on a 1-and-2 pitch. Then he intentionally walked Torii Hunter. Then he coughed up a first-pitch single to a calcifying Vlad Guerrero. Then he was lifted.

The lead was gone, the streak of 26 1/3 consecutive postseason innings without giving up a run was gone, and the season was gone.

Papelbon did not hide when it was over. In the proud tradition of Dennis Eckersley, he took all the questions in the quiet losers clubhouse.

Then he went home for the winter and worked out while watching a tape of himself spitting the bit against the Angels. He used the morbid moment as motivation.

He did not read the papers or watch a lot of ESPN, apparently. He didn’t know about the Sox acquiring John Lackey until a month after they picked up the Angels ace.

Papelbon plans to expand his pitch selection this year. He says he got too dependent on his fastball in 2009. According to fangraphs.com (folks who probably don’t get much sunshine but compile amazing statistics), 19.7 percent of Papelbon’s pitches were split-fingered fastballs in 2006. Last season, he threw splitters on only 9.7 percent of his pitches. His predictability hurt him in the fateful ninth against the Angels. Other than the intentional walk, he threw 16 consecutive fastballs.

“I’ve got some adjustments to make,’’ he said last night.

Most guys would refuse to concede the obvious. Big leaguers are trained to tell us that everything is the same. This year is no different from last year.

Papelbon is different. He speaks from the heart.

Cinco Ocho is a flight risk, for sure. He works on one-year deals. The Sox have been reluctant to lock him into a long-term deal because he’s expensive and he has a lot of wear and tear on his shoulder.

But it’s premature to think that Bard, Mr. 100 MPH, can step in and do the job Papelbon has done for the last four seasons. Papelbon is the Sox all-time save leader (151). He has recorded 35 or more saves in each of the last four seasons. His career ERA (1.84) is the second-best in big league history among pitchers who have thrown at least 250 innings (the immortal Ed Walsh is first with a 1.82 compiled between 1904-17).

Papelbon is still only 29 years old. He also brings some character and color to an increasingly bland clubhouse.

Even though it was the third inning, they played “I’m Shipping Up to Boston’’ when he came in last night. Papelbon retired catcher Drew Butera (Joe Mauer didn’t make the trip across town) on a grounder to third and got Matt Tolbert and Denard Span on fly balls to left field.

He threw 13 pitches, 10 for strikes. He threw four splitters. It was a third inning in Fort Myers, but Papelbon looked as though he were on the mound at Yankee Stadium in the ninth. He appears to be a man on a mission. And that’s a good thing.

“I’ve got to reset my mind-set to go out and start the postseason streak again,’’ he said. “It’s a new challenge, a new chapter in my game, and I’m excited for that.’’

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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