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Papelbon eyes new challenge

Closer quickly embraces Phillies

By Jon Marks
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2011

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PHILADELPHIA - So what’s the answer to the $50 million question that has dramatically altered the bullpens of the five-time NL East defending champion Phillies and the still-trying-to figure-out-how-it-all-fell-apart Red Sox? Why is Jonathan Papelbon here rather than there?

Money aside, and that’s a lot of money to put aside over the next four years, Papelbon said it’s the challenge of coming to a new league, coming to a team and a fan base that demands the same kind of excellence as the one he’s leaving behind. He said he’s trading in chowder for cheese steaks because he feels wanted here.

And he said that once the free agent process got started, Philadelphia quickly became his first choice.

“This happened pretty quick,’’ said the 31-year-old Papelbon, who fittingly entered the room at 4:58 p.m., removing his blue suit jacket to don his new red-pinstriped No. 58 jersey. “Quicker than I expected.

“I’m the type of guy who’s loyal to those who are loyal to me. These guys showed they wanted me. I didn’t want to sit and debate whether I should go back to Boston or come to Philly.

“I wanted to make this decision quick and get it over with. I knew these guys wanted me. There was no hesitation.’’

While Papelbon insisted there was no lingering animosity toward the Sox, the fact remains for whatever reason Boston never tried to lock him into a long-term deal. Apparently, amid the front office upheaval following the Sox’ September swoon, he and his agents got the distinct impression that wasn’t about to change.

“We’re thrilled that he’s been able to find a home that meets all his professional needs,’’ said one of his three agents, Seth Levinson, who was able to negotiate a fifth-year vesting option in the deal. “He thrives on the energy of the crowd and elevates his game when the competition is at its greatest.’’

Of course, virtually the same could be said of pitching in Boston, where Papelbon emerged as a force out of the bullpen, after arriving midway through the 2005 season. He departed with 219 saves with a 2.33 ERA, admitting it’s been quite a ride.

“Anytime a player leaves an organization he’s been with for a long time, he’s going to take lasting memories and lasting friendships with him,’’ said Papelbon, whose acquisition will force lefthanded reliever Antonio Bastardo to find a new number. “My best friends in baseball are [Dustin] Pedroia and David Ortiz and [Tim] Wakefield and [Jason] Varitek.

“We learned how to play big league baseball together. I’m obviously going to miss those guys and grinding out 162 games with them. But I don’t think that changes the way they look at me as a friend and competitor.

“I’m going to miss those guys, for sure. But when they come here to Philadelphia, I’m going to throw underneath their neck.’’

And he’ll also miss the love-hate relationship with Red Sox Nation, even though he’s stepping into a fan base just as fervent, where the Phillies have sold out the ballpark 207 straight times.

“Am I going to miss the fans of Boston? Hell, yes!’’ said Papelbon. “They’re great fans of baseball and smart fans. But this is a new chapter of my life. I’m excited to see what it has to offer.’’

What Papelbon has to offer to the Phillies is a combination of stability and performance at a high level. Speculation circulated much of last week that the Phillies were on the verge of re-signing their own closer, Ryan Madson, to a four-year, $44 million deal.

While general manager Ruben Amaro never disputed his interest in Madson, who never had established himself as a closer until this season, ultimately he believed Papelbon’s track record made more sense.

“Ryan’s had a fine career with us,’’ said Amaro, whose next order of business is determining whether he can re-sign long-time shortstop Jimmy Rollins. “We just felt with Jonathan, he was someone who had a little bit more experience, who had done it extraordinarily well for years.

“One of our goals was to make sure we shored up that position. We felt this was the right fit for us.’’

The same goes for Papelbon, who said he felt what came out internally about the Red Sox’ demise was overblown and didn’t truly reflect what took place on the field. The collapse culminated when Papelbon blew the save in Baltimore the last night of the season, and he said he hopes to learn from it so it never happens again.

“That’s probably one of the toughest things I’ve gone through in my career,’’ Papelbon said. “It’s those situations and those moments that happen that define who you are as a player. How you can handle adversity. I feel the way it ended in Boston will make me a better pitcher.’’

The Phillies are confident Papelbon can close games and get back to the World Series after they fell short last season despite a franchise-record 102 victories.

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