The last pitch Jonathan Papelbon threw in 2009 ultimately ended the Red Sox' season. A sweep at the hands of the Angels isn't the fault of one single player, but the lasting image for Red Sox fans this winter will be No. 58 taking the walk of the shame back to the dugout in the top of the ninth in Game 3 of the ALDS.
With a 6-4 lead and two outs and no one base, a Game 4 on Monday at Fenway Park looked to be inevitable. But an 0-2 pitch to Erick Aybar found grass in center field and before anyone knew it, postseason goat Vladimir Guerrero became postseason hero.
Papelbon took a career 0.00 postseason ERA into Game 3 of the ALDS against the Angels, and he left with that mark at 1.00. He left with the ninth inning still being played, and he left with Terry Francona turning to Hideki Okajima to try and put out the five-alarm fire Papelbon had quickly started.
The potential five-out save became a three-out blown save thanks to the two-out rally that sent the Halos to the ALCS. And while the bad blood toward the Red Sox closer boiled over after his meltdown, the unnecessary call for Papelbon to be relieved of his closing duties started long before Chone Figgins and Bobby Abreu touched home plate to give the Angels a 7-6 lead.
Papelbon's new delivery in 2009, increased walk total and inflated WHIP became a cause for concern throughout New England beginning in the early spring. And once Daniel Bard and his triple-digit fastball were called up to the majors, the Fenway faithful grew tired of the shaky saves and the trademark stare.
With Papelbon making every save opportunity look like Joe Borowski or Todd Jones was on the mound trying to get the final three outs, the intimidation of the once-dancing closer suddenly disappeared. In a season in which the Yankees ran away and hid with the AL East title before winning everything, and the Red Sox called up the hard-throwing Bard, Papelbon's failures and new-look mechanics were magnified even more.
In a game of "what have you done for me lately?" many New Englanders quickly forgot what Papelbon had done for them in the past.
In Papelbon's four years as Boston's closer, his ERAs have been 0.92, 1.85, 2.34 and 1.85. He has saved 151 games in 168 opportunities over that span, converting 89.9 percent. He has been about as good as it gets at the back of the bullpen, and in an era where closers come and go each season, Boston has begun to take for granted how easy outs Nos. 25, 26 and 27 have been for them to record the last four years.
After walking just 23 hitters in 127 2/3 innings from 2007-08, Papelbon gave away 24 free passes in 68 innings in '09. He matched a career high (set in 2007) for home runs allowed with five, and his WHIP rose to 1.147, the highest it has been since his rookie season in 2005. Despite his struggles throughout the year, Papelbon made his fourth straight All-Star team and finished tied for sixth in the majors with 38 saves.
But the young arm of Bard impressed enough Red Sox fans this season that he has been deemed the best option to close out games for the Red Sox in 2010 and beyond. However, the same people who feel that way probably aren't aware of the 24-year-old's high BB/9 total or the relatively high WHIP for a potential closer candidate. Or that his Kyle Farnsworth-like, straight fastball seemed to find the bleachers and gaps in crucial spots in the heat of a pennant race (twice to the Yankees and once to the Rays).
To make a change in the closer role next season, Francona is going to need indisputable evidence to replace one of the game's best for an unproven rookie with a harder fastball. Right now, that evidence just doesn't exist.
On Oct. 5, 1997, in his first season as a closer, a 27-year-old Mariano Rivera took the mound at Jacobs Field, needing a five-out save to send the Yankees back to the ALCS. Up two games to one in the division series against the Indians, Rivera retired the first hitter on a fly ball to right field. Now four outs away, Sandy Alomar stepped into the box and quickly got ahead of Rivera 2-0 before crushing the third pitch of the at-bat into the right-field seats. The solo shot tied the score at 2-2 before the Indians walked off with a win an inning later and wrapped up the series the following night.
Whether Rivera possessed the ability to bounce back from the type of homer that cripples the career of closers was questioned leading up to the start of the 1998 season. The Yankees won 114 games that season and the World Series, backed by Rivera's 1.91 ERA. They won it all the following two years after that as well.
But Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS wasn't going to be the only blemish on a long career for a reliever who has spent every October but one since 1996 playing in the postseason. Try Game 7 of the 2001 World Series or Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS.
No one is saying the Papelbon is on the same level or should be compared in the same sentence as Rivera. No one is saying that Papelbon will someday be a first ballot Hall of Famer like baseball's version of "The Great One." But like Rivera, Papelbon has a chance to learn from the stunning turn of events of October and use his experience to create success in the future.
No one is perfect in the game of baseball, and certainly no closer is or ever will be. But once those who think Papelbon shouldn't be the closer for the Red Sox come to their senses, they will realize he is the perfect man for the job in 2010.