Jonathan Papelbon and Terry Francona confirmed this afternoon that the club is abandoning the experiment to convert him to a starter and that he will continue as the team’s closer.
Papelbon, despite his public declarations of embracing the role of starter, said he hasn’t been able to sleep this spring because he wanted to close and finally told Francona of his desire on the field prior to Tuesday night’s exhibition game.
“I walked into Tito’s office and said, ‘If you want to give me the ball in the ninth, I want it,'” Papelbon said today.
Papelbon confirmed the decision after this afternoon’s game with Philadelphia.
“This was something that’s been kind of weighing on my shoulders for most of spring training, and trying to decide what makes me happy and what gets me going every day to show up at the ballpark to play 162 games a year,” Papelbon told ESPN. “I’m glad to finally make a decision and get it over with.”
Francona, who had spent a fair amount of time publicly disparaging the notion that Papelbon would close, acknowledged yesterday that the idea has been percolating for some time, so the team was ready to adjust on the fly. Julian Tavarez becomes the fifth starter, with Tim Wakefield sliding into the No. 4 hole.
“A lot of research has been done all spring because of the way he’s come into camp, the way he’s throwing, the way he structurally is so sound, the way he’s bouncing back,” Francona said in an ESPN interview. “There’s a lot of questions that I wanted to get answered, and to do something like this, there’s a lot of questions that needed answering by the appropriate people. And we went every step of the way, but then he beat me to the punch coming in.”
Papelbon said he told team captain Jason Varitek of his desire to close before speaking with the manager, and also consulted his family. His parents were in Clearwater to watch him pitch three innings today.
Both Papelbon and Francona insisted that Papelbon had done so well strengthening his shoulder that the medical reasons for making him a starter have been allayed. Francona did say he would have to closely monitor Papelbon’s workload to protect against overuse. He said last August, Papelbon threw more pitches than anyone in the big leagues.
“My shoulder issue is not really an issue at this point,” Papelbon told ESPN. “It’s really for me to go out there and stay on my shoulder program and really understand my body, know when I can and can’t pitch. There was a few times last year when I took the ball and maybe I shouldn’t have. But you can’t really point your finger at one thing to say why I got hurt last year. Thank God nothing tore and I’m able to come back healthy this year and reclaim my job.”
Papelbon was insistent that he would not do something that would jeopardize his health just because the team didn’t have a clear-cut alternative as closer.
“To make a decision solely based on one year is kind of retarded, in my opinion,” he said. “This is something I’d like to do the rest of my career. Forget about starting. Go out (as a closer), chase records and hopefully do for the Red Sox what Mariano Rivera does for the Yankees.”
“Obviously we’re thrilled,” Francona said. “This kid is very special.”
Francona insisted that if the team had any doubts about Papelbon’s health, it wouldn’t have mattered that Papelbon wanted to close. He would have walked Papelbon right out of his office if that had been the case.