Jonathan Papelbon entered a 7-4 game in the ninth inning Tuesday night to pick up his 26th save of the season. Facing baseball's 25th-best hitting team, the inning itself seemed to be more of a formality than anything.
Then things got ugly.
Papelbon got ahead of Jack Cust with a 1-2 count, but then threw three straight balls to one of the league's premier strikeout candidates. With a three-run cushion, however, a leadoff walk was far from the end of the world. Papelbon next retired Kurt Suzuki on a groundout and Ryan Sweeney on a popout, thanks to a nifty running catch by Nick Green.
Green probably wishes the night ended then.
Rookie Tommy Everidge recorded his first big league hit and RBI with a shot high off the monster, before Green botched consecutive throws, turning infield singles into infield doubles. Those errors gave the A's some extra bases and allowed them to tie the game before eventually going on to win in 11 innings.
Of course, it's hard to fault Papelbon for giving up a pair of weak infield hits. However, his blown save on Tuesday — just his third of the year — highlighted a problem that has been persistent with the closer all season.
Once a lights-out closer, Papelbon has been reduced to a mere mortal in 2009, due in large part to his slight decline in strikeouts and his alarmingly high walk rate. The numbers don't lie:
2006: 5.77 — 75 K's, 14 BBs
2007: 5.60 — 84 K's, 15 BBs
2008: 9.63 — 77 K's, 8 BBs
2009: 2.25 — 45 K's, 20 BBs
His strikeout per nine innings sits at a decent 9.4, but his walks per nine is up to 4.2 — his highest since 2005, when he made just 17 appearances.
The fact still remains that Papelbon's entry into any game no longer inspires confidence. Batters are squaring up on his pitches like never before, evidenced by his 83 flyball outs this season, which put him on pace to pass his career-high of 103. While any out is a good out, a strikeout is always a closer's best friend.
The problems are also evident in Papelbon's WHIP, which is at 1.372 — nearly double his marks in 2006 and 2007 and .42 points higher than that of last year.
Tuesday's appearance also marked the second straight whirlwind inning from Papelbon. Friday night against the hapless Orioles, Papelbon gave up two hits and a walk in a 3-1 game before getting Luke Scott and Melvin Mora to strike out swinging.
The strikeouts were there for Pap, but why do they seem to come only after the bases are loaded this year?
While it's easy to look at the numbers and see a different Papelbon, it's not as apparent while watching him pitch. While he made changes to his delivery in the offseason, his velocity is still in the high 90s, his splitter still dives to the dirt and his slider still looks nasty every now and again.
Even Papelbon was at a loss for words after the loss to the A's.
"What are you gonna do?" said a clearly dejected Papelbon. "Things like that happen. … You gotta move on and come back tomorrow ready to pitch again."
When asked what he thought he could have done better, his answer was simple: "Not walk the leadoff hitter."
Still, Papelbon, much like everybody else, lacked any sort of definitive answer for his outing.
"I had good stuff tonight," he said. "They were able to put together some at-bats. I feel like the only at-bat that I didn't really make a good pitch was to [Everidge]. … But I had two outs there, I gotta finish that game."
The good news for the Red Sox is that Papelbon's shown no sign of injury, so with no real explanation for his 2009 struggles, a return to form seems possible. But until he shows that the Papelbon of old is back, some rollercoaster innings and some blown three-run saves are always just a pitch or two away.
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