Sometimes Jonathan Papelbon’s syntax is a little strange, not to mention a few mixed metaphors and some surprising, thinly veiled insults to others around him. Sometimes Jonathan Papelbon is a little strange, without the words. But in recent days, the king of the Red Sox closers–though that title is nebulous according to many–has made some sense, both scholarly and profound. With all the jubilation about our Winter Signings Wonderland, we have been counting the wins. 100? 103? The best records in baseball in 84 years? But Pap brings us back to reality. He deflates the hype the way he punctures the hearts of autograph seekers by driving right by them with nary a glance.
We don’t have the best bullpen in baseball until we win the World Series, he says. This led me to consider how an overloaded pitching staff can suddenly look like the rotation of the PawSox. After last year’s decimating injuries to just about everyone in the lineup, we must be cautious about our expectations. That doesn’t mean my heart isn’t racing with the sight of palm trees.More importantly, though, I am thinking about the way we assume our bullpen is overloaded. We assume Bard is the closer of the future. Hey, we have Bobby Jenks, too. Was anyone paying attention when baseball’s brightest star unhinged his elbow in the nation’s capital? Of course we all were watching. We watched more closely as our middle relief and closers blew lead after lead. We have the bats, but never ever enough arms.
ESPN’s number three top play of the day is Nava’s diving catch. In Red Sox top plays, it is number 1. My other top play is Papelbon’s save, one of the best performances by any closer this year. He threw 14 pitches, 11 for strikes, while using every one of his pitches, including a 97 or 98 mph fastball. Mike’s Napoli’s whiff was a work of pitching art. For his 29th save, his numbers were almost identical. I know I am skipping over the painful blown save, but let’s look at Papelbon at his best. Dan Shaughnessy recently reported that there are only two other closers with better numbers than Pap. Mariano Rivera and Christy Mathewson. I can’t solve the debate about the closers, but I do know that two pitchers like the Bard and Pap are what most teams can only dream about. Give him the contract he wants, Theo. And hold onto the Bard. Many of our one-run game losses result from a rickety pen.
After the great win last night, with Nava’s stealthy dive, two things are important. First, momentum. How many times this year have we felt the high of a great win, with the premonition of the beginning of momentum, thinking, “hey it begins here, we will now win 12 of 14 or something.” Only more games and time will tell. Secondly, Nava’s hunger, along with his workmanship grit is all over that play. Watch the replay a few more times and what comes to mind is how bad he wants to play in the bigs.
One often wonders how the huge contract gets between the ears of a player. Jayson Werth of the Phillies comes to mind. A mid-season slump may have something to do with trade talks and his free agency. It might be a romantic notion to suggest that in this game money changes the intangible desires to win and prove oneself, but look at the young talent on this team. Watch Ryan Kalish getting advice last night from J.D. Drew after catching a fly ball either of them could have grabbed and you might see what’s in the blood of a younger player. Maybe we ought to let Pap keep grinding his teeth to more saves without the big payday.
By now you may have guessed I have a strange fascination with middle relief. For example, the odd journey of Cla Meredith is one I’ve followed for several years. Besides his infamous one-third of an inning at Fenway in 2005, when he closed the season with 27.00 ERA, he was sent to the Padres to bring Mirabelli back to catch knuckleballs for Wake. You remember. Then he returned to Fenway in April and threw his first career save when the O’s beat us 7-6. Now he is in the minors pitching for Norfolk. That’s after several seasons with the Padres and O’s, as a middle reliever. This might be the story of the Sox bullpen and the multiple roster moves. Boof, Country Joe Nelson, Scott Atch, now Dustin Richadrson. Wakefield was in the mix, too, for middle relief. Last night we had four pitchers before reaching Papelbon’s save. Bard threw one-third of an inning, With two relievers in the high 90s, I am confident about the second half of the season. Oki still stirs our anxieties. When breaking balls don’t drop, they fly into the seats. Somewhere in there, underneath the hood of the pen is the right combination. As suggested today by the Sox, we might have to make a few moves. In my limited fan’s view, a reliable pattern of relievers seems to work. Otherwise our journey to a win is somewhat like searching for Oz