April 12, 2006

Red Sox May Have New Young Closer

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Up until last week, the only thing that could make me jump off my couch and yell “PAP SMEAR!!!” was The Discovery Channel. And it wasn’t as if I was happy about it. Mostly, I would be screaming out of fear, because, frankly, there are some things that I just really don’t want to learn about.

But then last Wednesday happened.

The Red Sox were on the road against the Texas Rangers, holding on to a slim 2-1 lead going into the ninth inning. Josh Beckett, in his first start for Boston, had gutted out six consecutive scoreless innings after giving up the lone Texas run in the first, his outing punctuated by violent fist-pumps and October-esque intensity (remember, this is the kid who utterly dismantled the Yankees in the 2003 World Series as a member of the Marlins). Mike Timlin tossed an eventful but scoreless eighth, and Red Sox Nation held its collective breath, awaiting the ninth inning and the first real test on the comeback trail for embattled closer Keith Foulke.

Foulke and his two artificially lubricated knees stayed in the pen. To my surprise and delight, out trotted Jonathan Papelbon, all of 25 years old. Manager Terry Francona was going with the kid, after spending the balance of Spring Training insisting that the closer’s job was Foulke’s to lose. It was the first save situation of the young season, and he was passing over the veteran in favor of the fireballing youngster.

Paps didn’t disappoint. He annihilated the Rangers with 96 mph gas on the black. The control was pinpoint and the stuff was electric. God would have struck out.

The Sox had just won a game that the 2005 squad absolutely would have lost. I leapt off the couch, screamed “PAP SMEAR!!!” and started throwing haymakers into the air like a crazed baboon. (And yes, the only reason I’m writing this column is so I can repeatedly say “PAP SMEAR” and get away with it. Plus, I’m the 1000th sportswriter to make that joke, so I win a set of steak knives.)

In his three subsequent appearances, Papelbon has been similarly dominant. Including yesterday’s outing against the Blue Jays in Boston’s home opener and last week’s non-save inning on Opening Day, he has pitched five innings, given up exactly one hit, struck out five and walked none. I know that’s the mother of all small sample sizes, but it’s a ridiculously impressive start. Yesterday, in front of a rocking Fenway crowd, his ninth inning was straight out of the Sidd Finch Playbook:

Lyle Overbay – fastball looking, splitter swinging, fastball looking.

Shea Hillenbrand – fastball foul, slider popped weakly to left.

Bengie Molina – fastball looking, ball, ball, fastball foul, fastball lined to right.

Ballgame. Cue the Standells.

It’s not simply the fact that Papelbon succeeds, it’s the manner in which he goes about it. He’s a tall walking bitch of a ballplayer and he stalks the mound like a wild animal. He’s a predator. And the way he stares down the hitter – it’s like the second coming of Dave Stewart. Papelbon closing games is like calling on the 1986 version of Roger Clemens to pitch the ninth. It’s all piss and fire, and when the smoke clears, the Red Sox win. You really have to see him pitch to know what I mean.

There’s something to be said for having a closer with unhittable stuff – and it’s exactly that. Even when Foulke was The Man in 2004, his mid-to-high-80s slop always gave me the willies. Because whenever he missed his spots, it became batting practice. When Papelbon misses, the most a hitter can do is foul it off. I know it’s only April, but dammit if I don’t have otherworldly confidence in this kid. It’s easy to believe in a 96 mph fastball that explodes through the zone like a nuclear warhead.

I’m excited for two reasons. First, we’re roughly three more home games away from the fans in the left-centerfield bleachers getting creative and tracking Papelbon’s strikeouts by hanging pictures of speculums and gynecological stirrups in lieu of K’s (and if that’s not funny, well, then I don’t know what is). Second, the Red Sox have their best bullpen since … well, ever. At least since I’ve been alive.

Remember back when the Yankees won four World Series in five years (doesn’t that seem like a lifetime ago)? Any real baseball fan will tell you that those victories weren’t a result of Jeter’s calm eyes or Paul O’Neil’s temper tantrums – the Yankees won because they were playing six-inning games. All the Yankee starter had to do was make it through six frames with the lead, and then the bullpen would close the door without fail. It’s hard to recall now, but back when Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson and Ramiro Mendoza were still alive, they were nails in the middle innings. Everyone knows that Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer of all time, but he started out by setting up for John Wetteland. Opposing teams knew that if they didn’t have a significant lead by the middle of the game, they would lose. And more often than not, that’s exactly what happened.

Conceivably, the same situation could exist today in Boston’s bullpen. Timlin in the seventh, Foulke in the eighth and then Pap smears the ninth. Of course, this assumes that Foulke will regain some semblance of his 2004 form, when he saved 32 games and pitched with ice in his veins through the playoffs. After suffering both physically and mentally and pitching only 45 mostly-ineffective innings in 2005, his return to prominence isn’t exactly a forgone conclusion. However, his early results are encouraging (again, small sample size warning), and his dart-like delivery and control seem to have returned.

It’s a given that the Red Sox lineup is going to score runs. With a healthy (believe it) Curt Schilling and Josh Beckett at the top of the rotation, and a vastly improved defense backing them up, the starting pitching will provide quality innings. That’s all well and good. But if the Sox find themselves in the enviable position of having to choose between three dominant relievers to pitch high-leverage innings, then we’re six months from the following headline:


Per Ostman is a Sun Senior Writer.The Victory Lap will appear every other Wednesday this semester.

Archived article by Per Ostman
Sun Senior Writer