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Converted closer

Papelbon makes seamless switch to Phillies and National League

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / May 18, 2012
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PHILADELPHIA - Jonathan Papelbon started slowly, feeling out his new teammates, letting them adjust to him. When spring training began with the Phillies, the former Red Sox closer, sporting new colors and in new surroundings for the first time in his career, didn’t open his mouth immediately. There were a few weeks of silence - a subdued version of a closer who is rarely subdued.

And then he busted out the briefcase.

The case, all silver and black and metal, contained his in with the team. The cards were there, the chips, all the necessities for Texas Hold ’Em. That ended the charade, and Papelbon was back to running his regular poker game, the one he had championed in Boston. He was no longer the new kid at school who was just hoping to fit in.

“After that first [team] flight, that was all she wrote,’’ Papelbon said. “Started playing Cinco Ocho Casino. In Boston, Cinco Ocho Casino was on the verge of bankruptcy. Now we’re back and we’re thriving well.’’

It’s clear that Papelbon has let go of his brief period of quiet. He spends this Tuesday morning arguing the merits of Ric Flair - a popular topic in his previous clubhouse - including the wrestler’s famous strut. Shy, he is not.

Said Cliff Lee, “He’s borderline crazy sometimes. But on a baseball team, that’s fun. Usually. He’s definitely a baseball player, no doubt about it.’’

Said manager Charlie Manuel, “I think that he’s everything we thought he was. He wants the ball, he’s pretty intense, he’s colorful, he’s determined.’’

Said bullpen coach Mick Billmeyer, “He’s fun. He’s not a blah guy, he’s got some energy to him. He likes to test you and push your buttons.’’

There has been almost no transition for Papelbon, other than the trade of a blue cap for a red one over his trademark stare. He has been effective, something always endearing to new teammates, as well as entertaining.

He loves the city and the fans, loves the National League. And while the Phillies sometimes shake their heads over his antics, they seem to love him back. So far.

“I’m going to do my job the way I know how to do my job,’’ said Papelbon, who could be called on to face his former team Friday as the Sox begin a three-game series in Philadelphia. “I’m going to compete the way I know how to compete.

“And I’m going to be myself. I’m not going to be somebody I’m not. Sometimes that’s good. Sometimes that’s bad.’’

As when Papelbon insulted Red Sox fans - perhaps intentionally, perhaps not - in March, calling Phillies fans smarter, calling Red Sox fans “more hysterical.’’ It was something he brought up, unprompted, earlier this week, just days before Boston comes to town.

“I love the fans of Boston and I think the true fans have realized that it wasn’t a jab at them,’’ he said. “It wasn’t a jab at any of the Boston fans. The real Boston fans and the true Boston fans I will always cherish and love.

“And the ones that are wishy-washy and bandwagon fans, they probably took it in a way that I was throwing a low blow at them. But it wasn’t.’’

As Lee said, “There’s no telling what he’s going to say sometimes.’’

But for the Phillies, those comments were hardly their concern. They are far more focused on how their $50 million closer is impacting the club, impacting their chemistry.

“He’s been who he is,’’ Shane Victorino said. “That’s sometimes what this game is about, it’s about being yourself and going on a tear and bringing a personality, which is a positive.

“He brings that excitement, that wildness, that energy. It’s good for us.’’

Especially when combined with the way he has pitched.

“He’s all business on the mound,’’ Lee said. “There’s no telling what you’re going to see from him in the clubhouse or after the game or before the game, but when he’s on the mound, it’s all business and he takes it very serious.’’

Efficient and proficient

Not that there haven’t been missteps. Like his entrance music. “I’m Shipping Up To Boston’’ obviously had to be left behind at Fenway. (Except when, by chance, the song played during his first appearance with the Phillies in spring training. It was an ad for the Tilted Kilt Pub, already scheduled, though strangely well-timed.)

He tried “Man In The Box’’ by Alice in Chains. He tried “Antichrist Superstar’’ by Marilyn Manson. He has, for the moment, settled on “For Whom The Bell Tolls’’ by Metallica.

That was the song playing Monday as Papelbon jogged out from the bullpen in a quarter-filled Citizens Bank Park to face the Astros. The moment was less than electric. But Papelbon, as he has been most of this season, was effective.

One single, three strikeouts, save, game over.

Papelbon, who has 10 saves in 15 appearances with 18 strikeouts, has been adjusting well to the National League, to the new batters, the double switches, the quick games.

He has also been mixing his pitches. The heavy reliance on the four-seamer, at the expense of his splitter or slider or two-seamer, often frustrated the Sox and their fans.

That has changed, from all accounts, perhaps forced by the hand of a home ballpark that played him a cautionary tale when the first batter he faced homered into the flower beds.

“I think that split is probably working a little bit better for him right now,’’ said Astros manager and former Red Sox bench coach Brad Mills. “Looks like he’s got his velocity back up to what it was. It appeared to be down the last couple of years, but his velocity seems like it’s back up, which is going to make the split better anyway.

“And that’s probably why he’s having so much success.’’

That, and leaving the AL East. Papelbon will reap the benefits of moving to the National League, with teams often using their best pinch hitters earlier in games.

“It’s not like you get a rest,’’ Manuel said. “But at the same time, his stuff will play up big.’’

Turning the page quickly

Papelbon always knew this day would come, right from the beginning, or at least that’s what he says now. There was something uneasy about his relationship with the Sox, about the way they talked about him and treated him and viewed him.

He knew it. The fans knew it. The front office knew it.

“I was prepared to go somewhere else six years ago,’’ Papelbon said. “That’s just the way it was. It worked for me, it worked for them. And it came to an end. Just the way it was.’’

In his six full seasons in Boston, Papelbon was among the best and most consistent closers in baseball, making the All-Star team four times, and building a reputation for craziness and competence in equal measure.

But it was always clear that Papelbon wanted to break the bank with his first contract. There would be no discount. And that’s not the way the Red Sox view reliever contracts.

Still, Boston was the place where he built his name and career, where he decided he wanted to be a closer, even as Boston was molding him to start.

And then it ended. The 2011 finish took out others - Theo Epstein, Terry Francona, J.D. Drew - the end for longstanding members of a club that had enjoyed incredible success. It happened so fast.

“I would have liked to have ended the career in Boston on a different note, for sure,’’ Papelbon said. “But then it came into where I had to turn the page, quick. That’s part of our role. I accept that and I know that.’’

Perhaps that’s why he hasn’t kept up with the Sox this season, not as much as he had expected. He has been focused on Philadelphia.

“I think I’ve separated myself,’’ he said. “I’ve moved on.’’

Still, there is excitement about facing his former teammates, about shutting them down.

“For me, it’ll be like playing neighborhood baseball,’’ he said. “Backyard game of Wiffle ball. I’m going to be facing my buddies for bragging rights.

“And that’s kind of it.’’

And so he has moved on.

“I loved it,’’ Papelbon said. “I loved playing there. I loved the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry. I loved everything about it. It was an environment that I thrived in. But, you know, all good things must come to an end.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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