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Monday, May 27, 2013
Papelbon back 1st time since shipping out

By Gordon Edes

BOSTON -- With Jonathan Papelbon returning to Fenway Park for the first time since leaving Boston for the Philadelphia Phillies, a number of questions percolated around his old stomping grounds:

If Papelbon were to come out of the visitors’ bullpen and try to fist-bump the cop like he always did when he was with the Red Sox, would he get his arm twisted instead?

Would the stadium PA mistakenly play “Shipping Up to Boston,” instead of Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the music he has adopted as his entrance music for the Phils?

Would the fans cheer, boo or feign indifference?

Would he intimidate anyone with the death stare beneath the cap pulled down low or would they just complain about all the time he was taking between pitches?

Would the number of people wearing “Papelbon” Red Sox jerseys outnumber those wearing Sox jerseys with the names of Jenks, Bailey, Hanrahan and Aceves?

Would the Sox think of all the saves they could have had if they’d kept Papelbon or would they think of all the money they saved by letting him go?

Jonathan Papelbon
Jonathan Papelbon, lacing his shoes in Fenway for the first time since leaving the Sox, says he's not concerned about how he'll be received by fans.
Inquiring minds will have to wait one more night in hopes of getting answers to those questions as Papelbon wasn't called upon in an 9-3 Red Sox win. The teams meet again Tuesday at Fenway before completing their unusual home-and-home four-game series with a pair in Philadelphia on Wednesday at Thursday.

“Hopefully I’ll be received well,’’ Papelbon told the cluster of reporters assembled in the visitors’ dugout Monday afternoon. “I will also accept the fact I might not.

Papelbon departed after the 2011 season within days of becoming a free agent, signing a four-year, $50 million deal with the Phillies. There was no counteroffer from the Red Sox; both sides understood that the Sox weren’t going to pay that kind of money for their closer, even if Papelbon had saved 30 or more games for them in six straight seasons, 219 in all.

Papelbon saved 38 games for a Phillies team that had viewed him as a missing link to a championship team but instead finished at .500 (81-81), good for third place in the NL East. This season, he has nine more saves and an 0.96 ERA as the Phillies founder under .500 (24-27).

Meanwhile, the Sox lost Papelbon's purported replacement in 2012, Andrew Bailey, to a freak thumb injury and opened this season with a new closer, Joel Hanrahan, who registered a total of 22 outs before blowing out his elbow and requiring Tommy John surgery. So they again are going with Bailey, who has converted his last six save opportunities after blowing his first one.

“Hopefully the fans will understand what I did here was to come and help the team win,’’ Papelbon said. “That’s all I wanted to do, help the ballclub win and we won. Hopefully, they recognize that.

“If they don’t, I understand that. I get it. I’ll welcome it with open arms.’’

Papelbon’s last appearance in a Red Sox uniform in 2011 ended in a loss, one that set off a chain reaction that transformed the organization. Called upon to protect a 3-2 lead in the ninth inning of Game 162 in Baltimore, Papelbon instead walked off the mound a 4-3 loser. Moments later, the Rays won in Tropicana Field, the Sox were eliminated from the playoffs after a 7-20 September, Terry Francona was let go, Theo Epstein left for the Cubs, and the stench from that collapse lingered over last season’s debacle.

Papelbon said he hasn’t paid much attention since he left.

“I’ve moved on,’’ he said. “It does seem like a long time ago. I had a lot of great moments here, man, but I’ve turned the page. I’ll think about all that when my career is over. But right now, it’s blowing and going.’’

Papelbon said he’s a more complete pitcher now than he was in Boston. The biggest tangible difference is a drop in velocity of 2.5 miles an hour, according to fangraphs.com, which said his fastball averaged 95 mph in 2011, his last season in Boston, and registers at 92.5 mph this season. His strikeout rate has dropped to 7.23 per 9 innings, compared to 12.17 in Boston.

Part of that may be attributed to the still-small sample size -- 18 2/3 innings. But he’s also getting fewer swinging strikes, 10.4 percent compared to 16.8 in 2011 -- and twice as many fly balls as ground balls. He has allowed just one home run, however, and his walks per nine is a career-low 0.96.

“The last year and a half in Philly I have really become more of a complete pitcher in my mind,’’ Papelbon said, “and not just trying to blow it by everybody night in, night out. My location is better now, I’m throwing my two-seamer more, my slider more, all kinds of different things. I might even have a knuckleball in there.’’

Presumably, Papelbon has a knuckleball the way Daisuke Matsuzaka had a gyroball.

“I read swings more, I look at swings more,’’ said Papelbon, who at 32 is approaching the 10th anniversary of the day he signed with the Red Sox -- June 12, 2003.

Red Sox manager John Farrell, who was with Papelbon for four seasons as pitching coach, was generous in his praise Monday afternoon. The keys to Papelbon’s success?

“There are a few things,’’ Farrell said. “One, he’s got a very good short-term memory, so the days that don’t go well, he puts them behind him. Two, people recognize Pap as the closer, but you’re talking about an exceptional athlete that can channel that adrenaline and that emotion to command his fastball.

“When you see his ability to command a mid-90s fastball to the locations that he does for as long as he has, not to mention a very good split, someone who is durable, strong and a very good athlete, and he’s got the presence of mind in those situations, like I said, to channel the adrenaline. He’s a rare, rare pitcher ... he’s answered the durability, longevity questions.’’