Papelbon: You can't KO me

NEW YORK -- The day after giving up ninth-inning home runs to Alex Rodriguez and Marcus Thames, the sun did not come up for Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, despite what the cliché says.
But that's only because when Papelbon awoke Tuesday morning in his New York hotel room, the Manhattan skies were dumping rain.

"All that matters," Papelbon said Tuesday afternoon, "is it came up in my brain. And it did."

That ability to recognize that he would live to pitch another day -- despite blowing his first regular-season save since July 30, and after the first walk-off home run he has ever surrendered -- is what separates the good closers from those who can't handle the job, he said.

"It's the difference between the ones who last and the ones who don't," he said.

"I mean, it's a heavyweight fight, you know. The season's a heavyweight fight. You can't knock me out with one blow, you know what I mean?

"Our role as a closer, there's no such thing as a knockdown, a knockout," he said. "You might beat us one round, but it's a heavyweight fight. That's just the way I look at it."

But not even Mike Tyson, his favorite fighter growing up, had to climb right back into the ring one night later the way Papelbon was asked to do Tuesday night in a raw, rain-swept Yankee Stadium, to be tested under circumstances eerily similar to the ones in which he'd been dropped to his knees the night before: the Sox, once again having climbed back from a 5-0 deficit, ahead by two runs, the Yankees down to their last three outs, and Rodriguez and Thames due to hit again.

How did Papelbon respond this time? Rope-a-dope. The Yankees, with the help of the second of shortstop Marco Scutaro's damaging errors, had Papelbon pinned in the corner: One run in, tying run on third, winning run on second. The soaked remnants of the Yankees crowd howling for his head.

This was the Rumble in the Bronx Jungle, and Papelbon, like Muhammad Ali so many years before in Zaire, had the answer. He took some body blows but emerged triumphant, striking out Randy Winn to preserve a 7-6 Sox victory over the Bombers.

"I told you, man," Papelbon said afterward. "Rope-a-dope? Of course. Of course. Laying in the bushes.

"I'm telling you, it all comes around, man. It's all full circle. Everybody can breathe now. You can feel the tension all around here when we lose to these guys, and I think nobody in this whole equation, except for the players, thinks we're going to be all right."

This time, the closer with the impeccable pedigree who walked away defeated was the great Mariano Rivera, the Panamanian son of a sardine fisherman who deserves to have that adjective affixed before his name just as surely as Ernest Hemingway attached it to the son of another fisherman, the great DiMaggio.

On Sunday, Rivera was beaten by a grand slam from Minnesota's Jason Kubel, after going nearly three seasons without blowing a save at home. On Tuesday night, after an error by Alex Rodriguez opened the doors for the Sox to tie the score in the eighth against Joba Chamberlain, Rivera was done in by an error by Thames, giving Jeremy Hermida the chance to hit a game-winning two-run double.

Because of a 59-minute rain delay, it was after midnight when Papelbon was summoned to preserve the lead.

'I was hoping all night long that I'd be given a chance tonight," Papelbon said.

"You have to give [my teammates] all the credit in the world, to come back and give me the chance again to help this team win."

Papelbon said of the 19 pitches he threw Monday, 17 were four-seam fastballs, the other two splitters.

"The reason I wasn't successful yesterday is because I had a flat fastball," he said. "My legs, I didn't have that lower-half drive I'd been having. My delivery has been perfect. I just got off of it."

This time he was pitching on back-to-back days and for the third time in a four-day span that began with a seven-out outing in Detroit -- his longest regular-season appearance in four years.

"But I'm coming to the park the following days with no wear and tear on my body," he said. "Today I felt just as good, if not better, than yesterday, so that's very pleasing to me. Because to me, that means I'm going to be healthier. I'm going to have more energy in my delivery, time and time again, and if I have that, I'm going to be more successful through the course of 162 games."

Rodriguez, whose two-run home run had tied the game Monday, was the beneficiary of Scutaro's error, the ball skidding under the shortstop's attempt to backhand it. Rodriguez advanced to second on defensive indifference, then scored when Robinson Cano sliced a double down the left-field line.

Francisco Cervelli bunted Cano, the potential tying run, to third. Up came Thames, trying to shed the stigma of his botched basket catch and repeat his dramatics of the night before. Didn't happen. Papelbon, working carefully, walked him.

Then came the type of play that has seldom gone Boston's way this season. Rookie Juan Miranda hit a sharp comebacker to Papelbon, who whirled around -- "he looked like John Belushi, jumping around," manager Terry Francona said -- considered his options, and threw to first.

"I was glad," second baseman Dustin Pedroia said, "that he didn't throw the ball into right field."

The fielding drills pitchers undergo in spring training are called PFPs, short for "Pitchers Fielding Practice." No, Papelbon said, he couldn't recall making a better play in PFPs.

"I definitely didn't make a bigger one," he said. "They don't count in PFPs."

A Winn was all that stood between Papelbon and a Sox win. He threw the Yankees left-fielder eight straight fastballs, running the count full before Winn swung through the final pitch of the night. All that was missing was the bell signaling the end of the round.

The fight continues. And when it comes, the closer will answer the bell.

"As hard as we came back to win it," Francona said, "kind of like last night, and I know it was tough to win it, it's a heckuva lot better to win it than lose it."

Gordon Edes is ESPNBoston.com's Red Sox reporter. He covered the Red Sox for 12 years and has reported on baseball for 25 years. Ask a question for his next mailbag here.