It’s no secret that it hasn’t been a stellar year for Jonathan Papelbon. The closer’s gotten the job done, converting 32 of 35 saves heading into Tuesday night’s game, but he’s been far from the dominating, shutdown pitcher that Red Sox fans have grown accustomed to watching over the past few years.
So when Papelbon trotted toward the mound in the bottom of the eighth inning on Tuesday night with the bases loaded and nobody out and the tying run on first base, nobody knew what to expect.
That’s when Papelbon reminded everyone who he was.
Papelbon turned in what was easily his most impressive outing of the season. B.J. Upton couldn’t catch up with the gas, striking out on four pitches. Papelbon then needed a little help, and his speedy center fielder came through with a perfect sliding catch.
Pap then peppered Carl Crawford with fastball after fastball, eventually getting him to fly out to left field, ending the threat. He returned to the hill for the ninth, retiring the Rays in order and ending the game with consecutive called third strikes.
The six-out save was the first of the 28-year-old’s career and could mark the corner that he needed to turn as the Red Sox head into a heated playoff race in September. The drop in effectiveness from earlier in the season quickly became a distant memory, as Papelbon showed his best stuff in his biggest spot this year.
"You get his best stuff in those situations," manager Terry Francona told reporters after the game, according to The Boston Globe. "He’s able to still execute all of his pitches because he throws strikes. He’s really good, but you get the best of him in those situations."
Papelbon said he’s ready to handle similar situations in the near future.
“I think now’s the time where I’m going to have to start focusing on my body and preparing every day to pitch in these types of situations,” Papelbon told the Boston Herald. “It’s just that time of year. [A two-inning save] is not much of a different approach, really. The only thing that’s different for me is to really make sure I’m maintaining my delivery.”
What made Papelbon’s performance even more significant was the fact that he did it in St. Petersburg. The 2008 campaign ended abruptly on the fake grass in Florida, perhaps lingering a bit with the Sox this year. Before the win in the series opener at the Trop, the Red Sox had dropped five of their first six games there this season.
So as the game appeared to be slipping away from the Sox (as the wild-card contending Rangers were set to win their second game of the day), Papelbon quickly put out the fire.
"I try not to get any more fired up," Papelbon told MLB.com. "I try to keep telling myself the coolest guy is going to win those situations because those are pressure situations. When you get in pressure situations, the guy that's the coolest is always going to come out on top."
That is certainly a good sign for the Red Sox, and it brings to mind the absurd stats that Papelbon has posted in the playoffs. In 16 postseason appearances, Papelbon has never allowed a run — earned or otherwise — in 25 innings. He’s recorded 22 strikeouts to just six walks and has posted a 0.64 WHIP to go with his seven saves and 2-0 record.
If Tuesday night was any indication, the postseason edition of Papelbon is back, and he could be the difference-maker in a tight race for the wild card.
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