There was Jonathan Papelbon pumping in fastball after fastball against the Los Angeles Angels in the ninth inning of Game 3 of the American League Division Series. He threw 26 straight at one point, and the Angels were either letting them pass outside the zone or spoiling them until they got one they liked.
In a flash they had reached Papelbon for three runs and confirmed the closer?s worst fear. If he could not find a way to get hitters out with secondary stuff, particularly the split-fingered fastball, he would become predictable. With predictability came a closer who, for a day, was no longer a sure thing in October. With the splitter in his back pocket, Papelbon was a one-trick pony.
"I?ve got to make some adjustments," Papelbon said earlier this spring when asked about reducing the use of his fastball.
The success of those adjustments may mean the difference between October glory and October misery, both of which the 29-year-old has now experienced.
In reality, the trend began to take shape much earlier than that fall afternoon.
In 2009, Papelbon threw his fastball a career-high 81.5 percent of the time, the fourth straight year that percentage had increased. He threw the splitter — which gives him an out-pitch in certain counts and keeps hitters from keying in on the fastball — a career-low 9.3 percent of the time, less than half as often as he did in 2006.
"Until I got hurt with it, which was a big part of the season, I went with it," he said of the fastball. "Hindsight?s 20/20 now, but obviously I?m going to take that into consideration, try to be a little more selective with my pitch."
One reason for the fastball reliance lied in the fact that the splitter was missing its mark too often. Papelbon walked more men in 2009 (24) than he did the previous two years combined as many hitters were letting the splitter fall from the zone, rather than flail at it as they often did in the past. As the walks piled up so too did the fastballs and the book on Papelbon had changed.
It became a bit of an easier read, at least for the Angels.
Refinement of the split-fingered pitch is one thing. Papelbon has also committed to using a slider more often. It is a pitch he has used sparingly in past years, but threw nearly as often as splitters in 2009. If the splitter remains less of a weapon, improvement of another secondary pitch could help.
The Jonathan Papelbon who mixed things up and used his fastball with impunity mowed through lineups in October appearances from 2005 to 2008. The one who could use just the fastball due to a lack of confidence or lack of effectiveness in his other pitches had a postseason flameout for the ages.
Rediscovering the more varied repertoire of his early days is imperative to the Red Sox? success in 2010.
From now until Opening Day, NESN.com will run down 25 things that need to happen for the Red Sox to win the World Series.
March 29: Beat teams they are supposed to beat.