Long before the dancing, there was the decision.
Despite recording 35 saves and a 0.92 ERA in 59 relief appearances, and being named to the American League All-Star team as a rookie in 2006, because of concerns over a pitching shoulder that wore down and sidelined him the final month of the season, Jonathan Papelbon arrived in Fort Myers, Fla., last February expecting to be part of the Red Sox’ starting rotation.
The team’s medical staff felt starting was the best way for Papelbon to avoid a recurrence of a “transient subluxation event,” the shoulder slipping out of its normal position, and the big righthander was on board.
”It is bizarre,” Papelbon said at the time. “I’m not going to deny that. When the guys, the coaches, even the fans are used to seeing somebody do something successfully, it’s hard to watch them do something else. I have a little bump to get over to prove I’m fine. This is a good thing for me.”
The Sox had gone out and acquired what they hoped would be a suitable replacement, Joel Piñeiro, who had spent his entire professional career with the Mariners, the vast majority as a starter. And the belief was that Piñeiro had the stuff and makeup to make the change to closer.
While Papelbon was impressive in his initial spring training appearances, Piñeiro was anything but out of the bullpen. Julian Tavarez, Brendan Donnelly, and Mike Timlin were also considered for the role, and when the Sox were rebuffed in their efforts to pry a reliever from the Astros, it didn’t take long for them to realize that the best closer on the team - and perhaps in baseball - was the man slated to start the fourth game of the season in Texas, Papelbon.
So on March 22, after a visit in his office from Papelbon, who said he couldn’t sleep because he wanted to close, the decision came down from manager Terry Francona. Papelbon was back at the back of the Red Sox’ bullpen.
”It never made sense to move him,” said one Yankee, who asked not to be identified. “He’s a great closer. We might have been looking forward to the late innings if he wasn’t there, but now it’s the same as last year.”
And Papelbon proceeded to be the same nightmare for opposing lineups he was the year before, upping his save total by two and cutting his blown saves in half (six to three). There were times early in the season when Papelbon’s frustration over not being used a lot trickled to the surface, but the Sox’ plan always was to have as healthy a Papelbon in October as they had in April.
It paid off in the postseason. Whereas Papelbon went more than an inning in only four of his 59 regular-season appearances, he did so six times in seven playoff outings, totaling 10 2/3 innings without allowing a run.
Papelbon’s dance steps - which he unveiled on the Fenway lawn after the Sox clinched the AL East title, and displayed again after the ALCS victory over the Indians and last Tuesday as the Dropkick Murphys’ stage rolled through downtown Boston - may be getting the attention now, but the best step of the season was the one taken in March, the one again naming Papelbon the Red Sox’ closer.