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Red Sox Notebook

Papelbon has applied the finish

Jed Lowrie scored on Carl Crawford’s single while Angels catcher Hank Conger wasn’t looking. Jed Lowrie scored on Carl Crawford’s single while Angels catcher Hank Conger wasn’t looking. (Mark J. Terril/Associated Press)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / April 24, 2011

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Jonathan Papelbon got four outs against Oakland Wednesday afternoon, throwing 25 pitches to record the save. He came back Thursday night against the Angels, throwing 18 pitches and picking up another save.

Red Sox manager Terry Francona would have preferred to give Papelbon the day off Friday. But with the Sox clinging to a 4-3 lead against the Angels, Papelbon came out for the ninth inning.

The Angels had scored a run in the seventh inning and two more in the eighth. The crowd of 39,005 was hungry for the home team to finish off its comeback with a victory.

Twelve pitches later, Papelbon and his teammates were shaking hands after their sixth victory in seven games. The Angels got a single from Hank Conger with one out, but Papelbon got Peter Bourjos on a fly to right field and struck out Howie Kendrick on three pitches, the last a 95-mile-per-hour fastball.

On a night when he might have been a little weary, Papelbon was dominant. It was the fifth time in his career he has recorded saves on three consecutive days, the first time since Sept. 2-4, 2007.

“I think it shows how hard he’s worked,’’ Francona said. “Sometimes you expect a guy maybe to command, but drop off a little bit with stuff. His stuff was phenomenal.’’

Papelbon has converted all five of his save chances this season. In eight appearances overall, he has allowed two earned runs over 8 1/3 innings with seven hits, two walks, and 11 strikeouts.

Coming off a season in which he had a career-worst 3.90 earned run average and eight blown saves, Papelbon has returned to being one of the best closers in baseball.

Jon Lester, the winning pitcher Friday, isn’t surprised.

“That’s a testament to what he did this offseason,’’ he said. “I think Pap had a chip on his shoulder a little bit. I think he worked a little bit harder than normal. That’s nice to see three nights in a row throwing like he did.’’

Papelbon, who will be a free agent after the season, agreed with that assessment.

“It all boils down [to] working hard in the weight room,’’ he said. “Six years of knowing your body and years of knowing when to push the gas pedal or when to push the brake. I think I’m to the point in my career now where I have that down pretty pat.’’

For Francona, it comes down to how well Papelbon commands his fastball.

“Last year when he’d run into some problems, a lot of nights it was ball one, ball two, ball three. A lot of nights he’d fight his way back and have a tough save and there were a couple when he didn’t,’’ the manager said. “But right now he’s executing his pitches so well.

“Everything comes off fastball location. When he’s pumping that fastball in there, that opens up a lot of the plate. Pitching ahead and all of a sudden you’ve got the split. You start some guys off with an occasional breaking ball. He’s doing a good job.’’

Papelbon threw one slider Friday and Kendrick took it for a first-pitch strike. That gave Papelbon an advantage for the rest of the at-bat.

The slider has been developing pitch for Papelbon. It has been sharper this season, although not nearly to the level of his fastball or splitter.

“I feel real comfortable. I’m not going to throw it too many times or get too happy with it. But I’m still going to throw it. It’s a big pitch for me,’’ he said. “It’s added another pitch to my repertoire and it’s added some confidence because I can go to that pitch any time now.’’

Papelbon had a rocky spring training, posting a 12.60 ERA in six major league games and pitching erratically in several minor league games. Francona admitted the Red Sox were concerned and encouraged Papelbon to turn up his intensity to prepare for the season.

“We’d jab at him every once in a while and say, ‘Hey, let’s go. We’re starting in two weeks.’ He’d say, ‘I’ll be fine.’ I hate to say this, but he might be smarter than us. That really hurts,’’ Francona said.

Lester said the players weren’t as concerned. In their minds, last season was an anomaly.

“He’s been great in years past. When guys have long careers you’re going to have years when things just don’t go your way,’’ Lester said. “You come back and keep grinding it out. I don’t think anybody in this clubhouse was worried about Pap.’’

Where it all starts With a second consecutive stellar outing by Daisuke Matsuzaka last night — one hit allowed and nine strikeouts over eight innings in a 5-0 victory — Sox starters are 6-1 with a 1.01 earned run average in the last seven games.

“Somebody asked me what’s the best way to get it going,’’ said Francona. “I said a time or two through the rotation where they give us a chance every night. That’s exactly what has happened.’’

Sox starters have gone eight straight games without allowing more than two earned runs, the team’s longest such streak since 2004.

“It’s the No. 1 key,’’ Papelbon said. “It’s a domino effect from the starters. That’s how you win ballgames.’’

Splendid reminder Yesterday marked the 72d anniversary of Ted Williams hitting his first home run in the major leagues. It came in 1939 against the Philadelphia Athletics before a crowd of 12,000 at Fenway Park. A 20-year-old rookie at the time, Williams went on to hit .327 with 44 doubles, 11 triples, 31 homers, 107 walks, and 145 RBIs . . . With Carl Crawford dropping to eighth in the batting order, Francona has used 17 lineups in 20 games . . . Kevin Youkilis, who missed Friday’s game with a bruised left shin, was back at third base.

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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