SPRING TRAINING is a good reason why starting pitchers tend to boast the lowest golf handicaps in baseball. Given that their craft requires four times as much rest as labor, the bulk of their spring days pass for idylls of the privileged, blessed by sunshine, 12:15 tee times and the occasional, but leisurely, interruption of having to cover first base during fielding drills or, even more pastorally, stand like sheep in a meadow of outfield grass while shagging batting practice balls. New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, exempt as a starter from so many of those 8 a.m. spring bus rides across Florida, has been known to tell teammates with an amused shrug, "Hey, you had your chance. You should have been a pitcher." Last March 20 in Fort Myers, Fla., Jonathan Papelbon, who had been the Boston Red Sox closer in 2006 but was newly reassigned to the species of starting pitcher, stood sheeplike in the outfield, grazing for batting practice balls when his idyll was shattered by a thought he could no longer endure. Every day for the previous week the first thing on Papelbon's mind when he woke up was, Is this the day I'm going to the manager and tell him? "You know what?" he said to himself. "The hell with it."
Papelbon, 26, walked off the field and headed straight for the office of manager Terry Francona. "Tito," Papelbon said, addressing Francona by his nickname. "I've got to talk to you real quick."
"What is it, Pap?"
"Man, I'm not sleeping good. I know deep down in my heart this is not what I want to do. If you want to give me the ball in the ninth, I'd love to take it and go back in that role."
Francona reacted to the news with the restraint you might expect from a manager who was being asked to find a replacement for Papelbon from a cast of suspects who included Joel Pi√±iero, Brendan Donnelly, Devern Hansack, Mike Timlin and Craig Hansen. Which is to say, with all the restraint of a pardoned prisoner.
Replied Francona, "Well, hell yeah!"
See, Papelbon is more wolf than sheep. "On the mound with the ball in his hand and the game on the line," says Boston bullpen coach Gary Tuck, "he is pure rage."
Blue eyes ablaze, ferocity broadcast from his face, Papelbon looks like a man who's armed and has malicious intent, which, given an extraordinary and unique fastball that he swears is a gift from God, is at least partly true. He lives for confrontation, going back to the scuffles that interrupted driveway basketball, trampoline dodgeball or even family dinner (vying to see who'd finish first) when he was growing up in Jacksonville with his twin brothers, Jeremy and Josh, three years his junior and now both minor league pitchers. Why, just two years ago, while getting together over Christmas, the Papelbon boys couldn't complete a game of Yahtzee without a scuffle breaking out. A family game of Balderdash degenerated into another fight.
The high-wire act of closing fed Jonathan's jones for a good fight in the way that starting, with all that waiting and the intellectual demands of outthinking the same hitters three or four times a night, never could. "This [role] suits him," says Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling. "He's not exactly a charter member of Mensa, so he can just go right after people with two pitches. And he has a natural ability to just immediately forget the few times things don't go his way. Putting him back as a closer was a no-brainer."
"You play this game because every day you have the chance to kick somebody's ass and win," Papelbon says. "That's what gets my motor going. And when you put me in that situation 30 to 45 times a year? That seals the deal for me."
There was, however, one problem. Before he could save 36 games in 39 chances (through Sunday), before he could lower his career ERA to 1.65—the second lowest of any pitcher after his first three seasons (minimum: 150 innings)—before he could achieve the best strikeout rate in AL history (13.34 per nine innings) and before he could establish himself as the ultimate weapon for Boston heading into October ("The best closer in baseball," Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi calls him), Papelbon and the Red Sox needed to come up with a plan.
They had to come up with a way to keep his shoulder from breaking apart.
PAPELBON'S NATURAL throwing motion is almost freakishly efficient. Before he releases the ball, his right wrist is bent farther back than most pitchers', keeping his palm under the ball and his fingers entirely behind it. Think of a loaded catapult, with all that stored energy. When the arm comes forward and the wrist—the catapult in this case—releases, the ball comes out of his hand with extraordinary spin. The effect is that his fastball doesn't sink as much as most fastballs in the last five feet to the plate but instead creates the illusion of "hopping," or what hitters call "late life."
A hitter is physically unable to track a 97-mph fastball in its last five feet, relying instead on the stored memory of thousands of pitches to fill in the blanks of its likely path. But Papelbon's fastball appears to leave the expected path and then "disappears." "He's got that four-seam life on his fastball, that little oomph at the end, that you just can't teach," says Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar. "And like that's not enough, he has a devastating splitter. Pap's split is the best in the league."
Though Papelbon closed games at Mississippi State, the Red Sox drafted him in the fourth round in 2003 to be a starter. They saw the fastball; a decent breaking ball they figured would improve; his 6'4", 230-pound frame; and his excellent tempo and leg drive in his delivery, and they projected a 225-inning horse to lead the rotation. "To me there's nothing more valuable than a top-of-the-rotation starter," Red Sox G.M. Theo Epstein says. "How many times do you find a closer off the waiver wire, off the scrap heap, and sign him to incentive-laden deals? Now, how many times does that happen with a Number 1 starter? Never."
Papelbon made it to the big leagues as a starter in 2005 but finished the season in the bullpen. In '06 he made the Opening Day roster as a setup man, but in the third game of the season Francona used him in place of a struggling Keith Foulke. It was May 3 before Papelbon allowed a run and June 26 before he allowed another. Papelbon saved 35 games and worked more than one inning in 18 of his 59 appearances.
Then, in a Sept. 1 game against the Blue Jays, while working in a game for a third straight day (and on a pace for 81 innings), Papelbon felt such a terrible, burning sensation in his right shoulder that his first thought was, I'm going to need surgery.
Only he didn't. Papelbon's shoulder had subluxed, a technical term, in this case, for the bone of the upper arm dislodging from its socket in the shoulder. Papelbon's shoulder could be fixed with rest and rehabilitation, but from this episode the Red Sox learned something about Papelbon's physiology that will shape the rest of his career.
Beside his divine fastball, Papelbon is blessed with an unusually strong rotator cuff, the system of four tendons that stabilize the shoulder joint. It is Papelbon's curse, however, to have been born with a structurally compromised labrum. The labrum, which gets its name from the Latin word for "lip," is a ring of fibrous cartilage around the cavity of the shoulder joint where the bone of the upper arm fits. On that September evening Papelbon's rotator cuff, as sturdy as it is, became so fatigued from his workload that it essentially shut down, put-ting more stress on the labrum than it could handle. With nothing left to hold the shoulder together, the bone popped out of the shoulder socket.
The Red Sox' doctors warned the front office that Papelbon's workload and rest would need to be carefully managed to avoid a recurrence of the subluxation. Translation: He wasn't fit for the day-to-day uncertainties of closing. He would have to start.
"I wasn't crazy about it," Papelbon says. "I did it because it was like a boss telling you, 'This is what you gotta do.' And you think, That's right. This is their investment."
GREEK AND Roman playwrights had the deus ex machina. In 2006 Francona had Papelbon. The devices worked generally the same way. A playwright could write himself into a corner, putting his protagonist in some sticky entanglement of the plot, and all the writer would need to do is arrange for the intervention of a deus ex machina, or literally, a god from a machine, and an actor playing the god would be lowered by a crane on to the stage. Francona inserted his closer onto the late-inning stage with the same confidence that any predicament would be solved.
With Papelbon medically barred from closing, the Sox no longer had their automatic fix, but Epstein figured he would turn up a closer somewhere before the start of the 2007 season. They are not difficult to find. In the past seven years 15 pitchers have led or co-led the AL or the NL in saves. One month into spring training, however, the Red Sox still didn't have someone who could shut the door in the ninth.
Francona knew his best closer was Papelbon and, despite what the doctors said, hadn't given up hope that his star might yet return to the role. Schilling told Papelbon, "We're a good team, but with you closing, we could win 115 games."
Says Josh Papelbon, "I could tell he wanted to go back because I could tell he missed that excitement and adrenaline. He's an adrenaline junkie, and as a closer you get it every outing."
Meanwhile, there was some concern about how Papelbon would fare as a starter. Would that signature late life on his fastball still be there the second or third time through the lineup? Also, his breaking ball, which he never needed to throw very often as a closer, hadn't improved much since college, and he'd need it as a starting pitcher. The pitch did not come naturally to him. The gift that makes Papelbon such a top fastball pitcher—the ability to keep his right hand behind the ball—gets in the way of his breaking ball, which must be thrown with the hand rotating around the baseball.
Boston had changed its organizational philosophy about breaking balls. Velocity, command, changeups and splitters, the club believed, could be improved with instruction and experience, but the Sox brass had come to regard the ability to spin the ball as innate, like foot speed or height. In draft discussions executives who claim that a college pitcher's mediocre breaking ball can improve to a good one in the majors are now hooted down.
So, on March 20 Francona called Epstein immediately after Papelbon left his office. "You've got to talk to Pap!"
Epstein quickly met with Papelbon, who told him, "I woke up this morning and realized I'm a closer."
"If I were you," Epstein replied, "I'd want to start. The first thing is, the doctors said the best thing for you is to start. I also think you can do it. Obviously, you're going to be better as a closer than as a starter, but there aren't that many good starters out there."
(Understood in the discussion was that a decent starter also commands more money than an elite closer. "I've thought about that," Papelbon says now, "and over my career, what's the difference between $80 million and $100 million? O.K.? Nothing.")
"Go home," Epstein said. "Sleep on it. Wake up again tomorrow. If you still feel the same way, if you really feel like you were born to be a closer, we'll talk to the doctors and see if we can find a way to make this work."
The next morning team doctors and officials began devising the Papelbon Program. It covered two pages and was divided into three parts: how often he could be used, a daily testing program and a custom shoulder-strengthening program. For instance, Francona was not to use Papelbon three days in a row, or even two days in a row if he was coming off a high pitch count. Nor could he use Papelbon the day after he had pitched more than one inning.
The daily testing is the backbone of the program. In December 2005 the Red Sox hired Mike Reinhold as an assistant trainer. Reinhold had been the director of rehab and clinical education at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, home of famed sports orthopedist James Andrews. That means if surgery were ruled out for a patient, Andrews would turn him over to Reinhold to work him back into pitching shape. Reinhold would monitor Papelbon's testing.
EACH DAY, when Papelbon reports to work, he sees Reinhold and estimates the fatigue level of his shoulder on a scale of zero to five, with five being the most tired. Then Reinhold hooks him up to a strength-testing machine that supplements Papelbon's subjective score with an objective measurement of his shoulder strength. A report of the scores is logged along with Papelbon's recent usage patterns and presented to Francona and front-office officials. A summary advisement is included, which might give Francona clearance to use Papelbon aggressively or keep him from using the reliever at all.
As more data gets collected, the Red Sox hope to draw some links between Papelbon's usage and his fatigue. Are four-out saves, for instance, more taxing than working consecutive days? The program has worked so well and kept Papelbon so strong that Boston began loosening the rules in September, allowing Francona to use Papelbon three straight days for the first time this year.
Meanwhile, pitching coach John Farrell reworked Papelbon's delivery and practice habits. Farrell tightened up Papelbon's delivery to eliminate any wasted side-to-side movement, which had caused him to follow through toward the first base side of the mound and put additional strain on his shoulder. "More like a Ferris wheel," Papelbon says of his thrust toward home now, "where I'm coming right at you, and less like a carousel."
The result? Six months into the program, the Red Sox say Papelbon has sailed through the regular season in such good health that they can now increase his workload in the post-season, which could mean more eighth-inning appearances and more work on consecutive days—the Mariano Rivera treatment. Moreover, they are encouraged by the reconfigured postseason schedule, which includes extra off days during the Division and League Championship Series and before the World Series, allowing Papelbon time to rest. Even with a postseason maximum of 19 games, the Sox would still get 13 days off.
The Red Sox might never know what Papelbon could do as a starter, which is fine with him. But they will happily take their 60 innings from him every year. "Thirty years ago you never would have heard of him," Epstein says. "He would have come up, blown out, and that would have been it."
So Papelbon will stick with his program and with his ninth-inning routine, in which he steps off the back of the mound after throwing his warmup pitches, bows his head and says a prayer of thanks.
Thank you, God, for giving me the ability to come out on this particular night. Thank you for letting me come out on this mound in front of 40,000 people and get to do what I love to do and use this ability that you gave me for something good in this world. Amen.
"Once I do that," he says, "it's game time."
And at that very moment, when he climbs back up on the mound, looking for another fight to win, another ass to kick, with neither room to fail nor fear of that outcome, Jonathan Papelbon is exactly where he wants to be.
LATE & GREAT
A GALLERY OF OCTOBER DIFFERENCE MAKERS
MOMENTS BEFORE C.C. Sabathia's first career postseason start, in Game 3 of the 2001 Division Series between the Indians and the Mariners, Roberto Alomar approached the 21-year-old lefty on the mound and said, "Relax. We've got your back, kid." The then Indians second baseman wasn't lying, as the Tribe scored 17 runs in a win, only to lose the series in five games. Six years later the kid is a Cy Young front-runner and a big reason why the Indians are in the postseason for the first time since '01. "Back then I was just a nervous rookie along for the ride," says Sabathia. "Now, hopefully, I'm the guy the team counts on for a win." He has, in fact, become the Guy in the AL; at week's end, he led the league in innings (234); was tied for second in wins (18) with teammate Fausto Carmona, John Lackey, Justin Verlander and Chien-Ming Wang; and was fourth in strikeouts (205). A 6'7", 290-pound lefthander with a high-90s fastball, Sabathia is the kind of power pitcher who can dominate a short series in October, but it has been his mastery of the slow ball that has turned him into an elite pitcher. "I've finally learned how to throw my off-speed pitches in different counts," he says, "and my control is better than ever." Indeed, with only 36 walks through Sunday, his strikeout-to-walk ratio is the second best by a lefty starter since 1901.
NEW YORK METS
AS MANY of Flushing's finest suffered through an insidious case of the dog-day doldrums (seven losses in 20 days to the Phillies, three blown leads of three runs or more last week alone), David Wright refused to allow the Mets to completely crumble. Alex Rodriguez likely won't be New York's only third baseman to win a Most Valuable Player award in 2007, due largely to a second half in which Wright, at week's end, was first in the NL in batting average (.360) and OPS (1.078), second in runs scored (58), sixth in RBIs (54) and seventh in steals (16). With 30 homers, 34 steals and his 25th birthday still three months away, he's the fourth-youngest member of the 30--30 club. "For me, yes, he is the MVP," says Jose Reyes, the Mets' other 24-year-old star. "He comes through in the big spots for us. He deserves it." The Mets must have continued productivity from Wright if they hope to play deep into October, but they'll also need Reyes—the major league leader in steals, with 78—to maximize his pitcher-disrupting, run-creating abilities. "He's the igniter," says Wright. "For us to be at our best, we need Jose to get going." Reyes's April, in which he reached base at a .442 clip, seemed to corroborate the widespread belief that he's the game's most talented shortstop, but that figure has plummeted to .305 in September. In fact, Reyes has arguably been just the third-best shortstop in his division, behind Florida's Hanley Ramirez and Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins. Although a slumping Reyes is better than most ("When Jose's not at his best, he's still close to a .300 hitter and stealing bases," says G.M. Omar Minaya), he'll have to recapture his early-season magic for the Mets to reach their first World Series since 2000. "He knows that this team needs him," says Wright, "and he's preparing himself."
LOS ANGELES ANGELS
YOU WANT to see the Man?" Francisco Rodriguez asked his fiancée, Daian Pe√±a, a few months ago, after coming across a 2002 playoffs DVD in their L.A. home. It was five Octobers ago that Rodriguez, the youngest pitcher to appear in a World Series game in 32 years, became a national hero in his native Venezuela by winning five games as an unhittable setup man for the world champion Angels. Now Los Angeles needs Rodriguez to be the Man again. The 25-year-old closer has anchored a bullpen that has been a strength of past Angels teams, but this season the relief staff has struggled. (Its 4.06 ERA at week's end was eighth in the league.) Rodriguez, whose 129 saves over the last three years ties him with the Padres' Trevor Hoffman for the most in the majors, will most likely be counted on for a heftier October load than he's accustomed to. "It's been a very tough year for our staff—the toughest since I've been here," says Rodriguez, who picked up his 38th save on Sunday. The righthander remains essentially the same pitcher he was when he broke into the majors as a 20-year-old September call-up in '02, a hard thrower with a devastating slider. But when Rodriguez watches clips of himself as a baby-faced rookie, sometimes he wonders who he's looking at. "I can't believe how cool I was," says Rodriguez. "I was so young, too young to feel pressure. But that was five years ago. It's time to do some new things for a new DVD."
HOW IMPORTANT is Brandon Webb to the Diamondbacks? There is his superb ERA (3.03), high strikeout rate (7.53 per nine innings) and lengthy scoreless-innings streak this summer (42), of course. Then consider that performance against the backdrop of the rest of Arizona's rotation, which includes a rookie known more for his bat than his arm (Micah Owings); a soft-tossing, journeyman lefty whose 75--75 lifetime record is the very definition of mediocrity (Doug Davis); a soft-tossing, journeyman righty with a nearly 1:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and against whom opponents are hitting .300 in '07 (Livan Hernandez); and a 24-year-old who has given up 17 homers in 95 2/3 innings and as recently as 2004 went 0--9 with a 9.32 ERA (Edgar Gonzalez). Conventional wisdom holds that Arizona (which had been outscored by 14 runs at week's end despite its 88--68 record) is toast in the postseason, when power arms are paramount. But with more off days than ever between games during this fall's playoffs, Webb will be able to pitch twice in a first-round series (Games 1 and 4) with comfortable rest, and possibly even three times in the second round. If Webb and the deep Arizona pen can win three starts in the NLCS, the D-Backs will need only one win in four tries from its other starters to advance to its first Fall Classic since 2001. No, this Arizona rotation doesn't recall those World Series champs, who were built around Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, but rather the 1988 Dodgers, who relied on Orel Hershiser and not much else to win it all.
NEW YORK YANKEES
AS HE wraps up what will almost certainly be his third MVP season, and his 14th year as one of the very best ever to have played the game, there remains a segment of the baseball world that simply won't give Alex Rodriguez his due. The critics focus on a sliver of his career: his last dozen postseason games, in which he had four hits in 41 at bats. It's a good way to miss the greatness, like judging Bob Dylan based on a chord change you saw him blow at a live show back in '66. The "choker" label? Set it aside. In his postseason career—it goes back prior to Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS against Boston, contrary to what you may have heard—Rodriguez has a .280 batting average with a .375 on-base percentage and a .485 slugging average in 35 games, perfectly decent numbers when you consider that the pitching is better and the weather colder in October. (At .257/.353/.492, Boston's Manny Ramirez has a similar postseason line.) Rodriguez's résumé includes two postseason series in which he carried his team, the 2000 ALCS (.409/.480/.773 for the Mariners) and '04 Division Series (.421/.476/.737 for the Yankees), not to mention a September '07 in which, at week's end, he had eight homers and a 1.059 OPS as the Yankees made their postseason push.
"Pap's got that four-seam life on his fastball, that little oomph at the end, that you just can't teach. And like that's not enough, he has a devastating splitter."
Baltimore Orioles first baseman
The Red Sox say Papelbon has sailed through the season in such good health that they can increase his workload in the postseason.
"He's the igniter. For us to be at our best, we need Jose to get going.... He knows that this team needs him."
"Back [in the 2001 postseason] I was a nervous rookie along for the ride. Now hopefully I'm the guy that the team counts on for a win."
This Arizona rotation doesn't recall the 2001 champs, who were built around Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, but rather the 1988 Dodgers, who relied on Orel Hershiser and not much else to win.
More exclusive photos from Walter Iooss Jr. and complete coverage of the playoff races.
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Photograph by WALTER IOOSS JR.
Photographs by WALTER IOOSS JR.