By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2006; E01
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.
"I told Foulkey, 'Look, there are some certain scenarios where, I'll be honest with you, if we go to that point, we're going to pitch Papelbon,' " Francona said. "I said, 'You're not ready to be yourself yet.' That night, Pap came in [in the ninth inning of a 2-1 game] and blew them away."
And just like that, the Red Sox had a new closer -- a move that sent great waves of tumult throughout Red Sox Nation, where even the smallest bits of roster intrigue are debated at length on message boards, blogs and talk radio. This move, though, was a huge one, although the impact was lessened by the fact Foulke accepted the demotion with grace.
"There was nothing awkward about it," Papelbon said. "Keith has always been great for me. He's done nothing but help me transition into this role."
Ostensibly, the move was to be a temporary one, with Papelbon eventually sliding back into a starting role the next time an injury created an opening, and Foulke reclaiming the closer's job when he made a full recovery.
But very soon it became clear the move would be permanent. You simply cannot mess with perfection, and Papelbon was a perfect 20 for 20 in save opportunities for the first two months of the season, at which point he had given up only one earned run, giving him an ERA -- 0.30 -- that looked like a misprint.
"Until the day [Francona] told me they wanted me to close, I still thought of myself as a starter," Papelbon said. "It just sort of came out of nowhere. Instead of focusing on having a great year as a starter, I focused on having a great year as a closer."
And what a great year it has been. His 29 saves (in 32 opportunities) lead the majors, and he is virtually ensured of breaking the major league record for rookies, held by Seattle's Kazuhiro Sasaki, who had 37 in 2000. But that does not begin to speak to how unhittable Papelbon has been.
Having ditched his curveball completely -- relying instead on a 96-mph fastball and a filthy, 90-mph split-fingered pitch, with an occasional slider thrown in for good measure -- Papelbon has held opposing batters to a .152 batting average, including a .108 mark for right-handed batters. With runners in scoring position, the figure drops to .065.
"He's an intimidating guy out there," said Doug Mirabelli, Boston's backup catcher. "He's coming at you with so much power. His split is just devastating when he's throwing it right. And the fastball is so electric. Not too many guys, even when they're ahead in the count, can [catch up to it]. His ball has a lot of rise to it, a lot of carry. And he doesn't miss his spots very much. He's a special one."
"His stuff," said David Ortiz, the Red Sox' designated hitter, "is just . . . wow."
Papelbon's selection, by his fellow players, to the AL all-star team earlier this month was just the beginning of what could be a huge haul of hardware this season. Even in a season rich with phenom pitchers -- such as Detroit's Justin Verlander and Minnesota's Francisco Liriano -- Papelbon is a leading contender for rookie of the year.
But a case can also be made for Papelbon as a contender for the MVP and/or Cy Young Award. Such consideration is not unprecedented. In 1989, Baltimore's Gregg Olsen won rookie of the year, finished sixth in the voting for the Cy Young and 12th for MVP. And in 1981, Fernando Valenzuela of the Los Angeles Dodgers won the rookie and Cy Young awards in the NL and finished fifth in the voting for MVP.
Looking ahead even further, the Red Sox may already be dreading the difficult decision that awaits them next spring: Should they move Papelbon back to the rotation, or leave him where he is? Or, phrased another way, would they be better served having him throw 200 to 225 innings a year as a starter, or 75 to 80 innings a year as a closer? As a further consideration, the Red Sox have another phenom, Craig Hansen, who is being groomed as a closer.
"That's going to be the $10 million question," Francona said. "I can't tell you what we're going to do. We'll get input from [the front office], from me and the coaches, and from [Papelbon himself]. He'll be included in that decision. I don't know what's going to happen, but that's the way we'll make that decision."
Papelbon's take: "[Starting] doesn't enter my mind anymore. I've started my big league experience as a closer, and I'd like to end it as one. I fell in love with the role. Every time you take the field [as a closer], you have a chance to put a win in the books. There's nothing better than that."
Either way, of course, the Red Sox will be thrilled to have him in their uniform next season and beyond -- this gift that fell from the sky, this precious gift that the Red Sox would not want to imagine themselves without.