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"If he's our closer,'' Francona ventured, "he'll be an All-Star.''
Two months ago, such a statement bordered on the absurd. Papelbon didn't have a single save to his credit in his brief major league career, and the Sox -- publicly at least -- were touting the imminent return of Keith Foulke, their 2004 postseason savior who was limited by two knee surgeries last season.
In the first week of the season, however, the remark ceased being a fantasy. After Foulke was hit hard in a mop-up appearance on Opening Day, Francona determined it was time to audition Papelbon.
In the third game of the season, Papelbon needed only a dozen pitches to manhandle the Texas Rangers. The ball never left the infield against him and the Rangers, fighting off his fastball in the mid-90s and his diving splitter in the dirt, never had a chance.
Francona and the Red Sox haven't looked back since. Papelbon has successfully converted all 12 of his save opportunities. Until he allowed a ninth-inning run last Wednesday in a tie game against Toronto, he had a scoreless streak that dated back to last September, covering 21 1/3 innings and 17 appearances.
His ERA is 0.50 and opposing batters are hitting .175 against him. In 18 innings, he's fanned 17 and walked only two.
Any more questions, class?
"I'm not surprised,'' insists Francona. "I wouldn't have [installed him as the closer] if I hadn't been sure. I saw a guy who has the ability to throw strikes and in short situations has the ability to gear up his velocity. Because he's been a starter, he can throw three different pitches. But when he gets boxed in, he can reach back for a little extra.''
Ask Alex Rodriguez, who couldn't catch up to a riding 95 mph fastball up and out of the strike zone last Monday. Or Rodriguez's teammate Jorge Posada, who was powerless to fend off a 97 mph heater for the final out of Monday's game.
That night, Papelbon came on in the ninth inning against the Yankees despite a four-run Red Sox lead and a non-save situation. Francona later admitted he had a hidden motive.
"I wanted them to see him,'' said Francona. "He's a weapon for us. They've had one of the most intimidating guys [Mariano Rivera] in the ninth inning for years. We're the one team to put some dents in him, but not many. Now, it's our turn. [Papelbon's] a major weapon. He makes us a better team.''
When spring training began, it seemed Papelbon would make the team as the power set-up man. The rotation appeared already crowded with Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield, Josh Beckett, David Wells and Matt Clement, with Bronson Arroyo in reserve. Foulke, a year removed from some off-field issues and physical maladies that compromised his effectiveness, showed signs that he was capable of reclaiming his closer role.
But as the season drew closer, it became harder and harder for Francona to ignore Papelbon's obvious brilliance.
"All spring, I kept telling myself he could do the job,'' the manager said. "This guy was just too good.''
Papelbon, a fourth-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2003, has a delightfully kooky air to him. Teammates are still trying to figure out why the 25-year-old Baton Rouge native had to submit to a Mohawk haircut after winning a bet with teammate Kevin Youkilis.
On the mound, he projects a confidence that sits just this side of cockiness.
"I think he expects this from himself,'' Schilling said.
When the Yankees visited Fenway last week and some people got carried away by making comparisons of him and Rivera, Papelbon didn't run from them.
"Obviously, I'd like to be the best and I'm going to be gunning after [Rivera],'' said Papelbon. "It's a competition within itself. It's a competition for me. And it's good fun.''
He seemed to instinctively grasp why his manager wanted to showcase him when he remarked: "I just wanted to set the tone and keep it rolling.''
His stuff and makeup even got Rivera's attention.
"What I saw is, he threw strikes and challenged hitters,'' the Yankees' closer said. "If you do that, you go far.''
Papelbon exudes no fear on the mound, rare for a rookie, especially entrusted with the ninth inning in a city like Boston.
"A lot of guys aren't good enough to be scared,'' said Schilling. "They say, 'I have no fear.' Yeah, that's because they [stink]. But he's got both the weapons and the maturity. That's pretty special.''
Asked how long it took for Papelbon to convince the Red Sox clubhouse that he had the right stuff and the right makeup to handle the responsibility, both Schilling and Francona answered in similar fashion: his first night on the job.
"I think he had [the right approach] from the day he got here,'' Schilling said. "And what he didn't have, he worked his [butt] off to get. He has the utmost confidence in his ability to dominate. Not perform, but dominate.''
There's no looking back for the Red Sox. Foulke has been shifted to a middle relief role and occasionally is called on to use his changeup to retire lefties. Venerable Mike Timlin takes care of the eighth inning. When the ninth comes, Papelbon comes out of the bullpen, shakes each leg a couple of times and sprints for the mound like a matador.
"There may be a few guys who doubt whether he can do it,'' said Schilling, a sly smile creasing his face. "But they're the ones who haven't seen him yet.''
Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.