For what has to be the first time of the year (and perhaps the past two years), Jonathan Papelbon was consistently hitting 99 and 98 mph on the radar gun with his fastball — even after he took a line drive off his foot. It was a glimpse back to the days when he was a young, nearly unhittable arm out of the Red Sox' bullpen.
Despite the fastball velocity, however, five of his first 15 pitches were sliders — unquestionably the worst pitch in his arsenal.
When he faced Travis Snider, who was 1-for-4 with three strikeouts against Papelbon heading into the at-bat, Papelbon threw:
- A splitter at 91 mph in the dirt for a ball
- Another splitter for a swinging strike
- A 98-mph fastball for a swinging strike
- A 99-mph fastball to finish him off
It was the type of dominating stuff that made Papelbon one of the best closers in baseball from 2006-08. He followed that at-bat, however, with four pitches to Edwin Encarnacion, who was 0-for-his-last-13. Rather than try to bury him with his best stuff, Papelbon threw one fastball and three sliders. The final one was mashed down the left-field line for a game-tying double.
Despite the fact that he was lighting up the radar gun, Papelbon said he didn't feel very strong on the mound.
"I didn't have much power or energy in my delivery today," he told reporters after the 6-5 loss, saying he felt "groggy."
Papelbon said his struggles were more a problem of execution than pitch selection.
"It seemed like every one of my pitches today was up in the zone," he said. "In a pressure situation, obviously, that can't happen."
Manager Terry Francona said Papelbon's problems came as a result of flat pitches.
"There were some pitches he threw that were flat," Francona said. "He elevated some pitches, and when he did they hit 'em hard. It wasn't every pitch, [but] when he made a mistake, they whacked it pretty good."
Though Francona didn't say that the slider, specifically, was flat, it was clear watching the game that it was not working. That may very well be the biggest challenge in trying to solve Papelbon's problems.
It's impossible to forget his worst blown save of all — his one-inning, three-run meltdown against the Angels in last year's playoffs. After that game, just about everyone agreed that Papelbon's problem was that he threw 26 consecutive fastballs. Conventional wisdom says that no matter how hard you throw a fastball, it will get hit if it's your only pitch. That day, the adage was true.
So you'd think some variety would be just what the doctor ordered, but not this time. The slider was delivered at 85 mph around the bottom of the strike zone, and the Blue Jays took three for balls, one for a strike and smoked a double on the other one.
Even more maddening is how shortly it followed one of Papelbon's best outings in recent memory, which took place Monday at Yankee Stadium. With a one-run lead, two runners on and two outs in the eighth inning, Papelbon retired Austin Kearns with one splitter. In the ninth, he threw nothing but fastballs and splitters. His results: swinging strikeout, walk, swinging strikeout, swinging strikeout. Inning over. Ballgame over.
By that measure, maybe the problem is as simple as the slider. FanGraphs, for what it's worth, says that Papelbon's velocity on his slider dropped nearly two mph from last year, and the drop from '08 to '09 was 2.5 mph.
It's obviously more complicated than that. In all of his last three blown saves (Thursday, Aug. 1 vs. Tigers, July 22 at Seattle), he entered in the middle of an inning. Ever creatures of habit, perhaps the absence of those between-inning warmup tosses throws him off his game. If that's the case for your closer, you have yourself some problems.
Whatever the reason, Papelbon now has six blown saves for the Red Sox, who are scrapping to stay alive in the playoff hunt. Only Tyler Clippard (nine), Leo Nunez and Billy Wagner (seven apiece) have more blown saves — that's not exactly like being in the company of Mariano Rivera, Heath Bell, Brian Wilson, Rafael Soriano and Joakim Soria, to say the least.
Still, as frustrating as Thursday's outing was for Papelbon and the Red Sox, it isn't necessarily indicative of an awful season. In his previous five outings, Papelbon had allowed just one hit and three walks in five innings, striking out six and converting five saves in the process. In fact, he had allowed just one run in his last 17 2/3 innings leading up to Thursday. An optimist will say those numbers mean he can get it together before it's too late, while a pessimist will point out that only a few of those outings were against top offenses.
Papelbon has long said that he can't wait to be a free agent after the 2011 season so that he can try to make Rivera-type money. It's time now, however, to focus on the task at hand rather than a potential payday.
For inspiration for that payday, Papelbon said in the offseason that he watched his postseason blown save over and over again in the weight room all winter.
"Every time I'm in the gym struggling, feeling like [expletive], I look up at the TV, and it gives me a kick," he told ESPN.com in January. "The difference between All-Stars and Hall of Famers is that they don't stay in ruts. So I'm going to get in a four-wheel drive and pull right out of that mud hole.''
Now 116 games into the season, and with his team four games out of the wild card, that mud hole is getting deeper. Papelbon might want to try popping in a DVD from 2007 to remind himself how dominant he once was.