Papelbon Makes a Speedy Arrival

Jonathan Papelbon
Jonathan Papelbon has allowed only three runs in 45 appearances this season. (Michael Dwyer - AP)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2006

OAKLAND, Calif. -- A beautiful gift fell from the sky this spring and landed at the feet of the Boston Red Sox. It was so radiant, they didn't know what to do with it at first. So precious, they have come to treat it with exceptional care. So powerful, the mind races at what the future could hold. For now, however, it is simply a gift that should be shared with and enjoyed by the world. All behold, Jonathan Papelbon.

It is not every year -- or every decade, or even every generation -- that produces a pitcher such as Papelbon, the Red Sox' rookie closer. Since a serendipitous chain of events thrust him into that demanding role in April, Papelbon has been almost untouchable, allowing only three runs in 45 appearances this season (a 0.53 ERA) while helping keep the Red Sox in first place in the American League East, barely ahead of the arch-rival New York Yankees.

"This guy," Red Sox Manager Terry Francona said, "has been a godsend."

In the process, Papelbon has thrust himself into the debate for all three of the major AL awards -- rookie of the year, most valuable player and Cy Young Award -- and has become a folk hero of sorts in Boston, a city that has been known both to create and destroy them on a regular basis.

"It's been crazy," Papelbon said of his rapid ascent to fame. "There's nothing to compare it to."

The most amazing thing about Papelbon's rise as arguably the greatest rookie closer of all time is that it almost didn't happen. When the spring began, the Red Sox were overflowing with quality starting pitchers -- so much so, in fact, that they felt confident enough to trade Bronson Arroyo to the Cincinnati Reds for outfielder Wily Mo Peña.

"We thought we had a surplus of starters," Francona said. "Stupid us."

Papelbon, 25, had been a closer at Mississippi State, but was by this point considered the Red Sox' next great starting-pitcher-in-waiting after going a combined 18-11 with a 2.62 ERA and 262 strikeouts in 244 1/3 minor league innings in 2004 and 2005, all but three of his 45 appearances coming as a starter.

After watching him destroy batters all spring, the Red Sox knew they wanted him on their roster. It was just a matter of where.

"We told him, 'Look, we've got all these starters -- you're going to pitch in our bullpen,' " Francona said. "Not mop-up -- with games on the line. We just don't know [what role].' When you have an arm like that, you find a place for him."

The Red Sox also already had veteran closer Keith Foulke, the popular figure who was on the mound in 2004 when the Red Sox clinched their first World Series title in 86 years. Foulke, however, had knee surgery last September and clearly was not 100 percent healthy.

In the Red Sox' 7-3 Opening Day win at Texas, Papelbon pitched a perfect eighth, but Foulke struggled through a rocky ninth, and two days later Francona called Foulke into his office.

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