It started badly and it ended in absolute horror. Jonathan Papelbon’s afternoon was a march into baseball Hades.
Juan Rivera hit his first pitch in the eighth into right-center for a two-run single. Vladimir Guerrero hit his 32d, and final, pitch into that same area of the Fenway Park outfield for a game-deciding two-run single.
His next pitch will be in spring training, 2010.
”Things happen quick, more than anything,” he said. “I wasn’t able to stop the bleeding.”
He’s right. It all happened very quickly. He did, after all, get the first two men in the ninth and he put a brisk 0-and-2 on Erick Aybar. He was one strike away from preserving the two-run lead that would have sent everyone back to Fenway tonight for another baseball game.
But that game-ending third strike, or a game-ending anything never materialized. Instead of a fastball with that little extra ooomph, he was in possession of just a plain, ordinary, still life of a fastball. And even Jonathan Papelbon can’t get away with a straight fastball right down Broadway.
”I really couldn’t locate when I needed to,” he explained.
He had been Mr. Reliable in the postseason, unscored upon in 26 career innings, covering 17 playoff appearances. But that aura of invincibility was shattered when Rivera hit that first-pitch fastball to bring home Billy Wagner’s two inherited runners. Now the premise that Jonathan Papelbon is absolute cash money in the postseason is completely untrue after the Angels scored three times with two men out and nobody on for a series-clinching 7-6 victory yesterday.
It was a rough week for playoff closers. Ryan Franklin couldn’t get a needed third out against the Dodgers Thursday. Joe Nathan couldn’t get the job done against the Yankees Friday. And Papelbon was roughed up by the Angels yesterday. All this reminds us we never should take what these gentlemen do for granted.
As you might expect, Papelbon was in a zombie-like state for the first 25 minutes or so after the game. He is not used to postseason failure, and this had been a shockingly abrupt turn of events.
”You go into the top of the inning excited because you think you’re going to keep playing,” said manager Terry Francona. “Half an inning later, you’re going home. So it’s disappointing.”
Part of being a premier closer is being able to handle those rare occasions when it all blows up in your face. Even Mariano Rivera knows the feeling (Indians in ‘97, Diamondbacks in ‘01, Red Sox in ‘04, to name three). Papelbon is a big boy, and he will get over this.
”It hurts just as much as any other postseason loss,” he said, after composing himself. “You can’t sit there and classify how much it hurts.”
Already, he has a plan.
”When I leave the clubhouse, I won’t take anything home, or to the offseason with me,” he said. “But when you do go home for an offseason after [a season] ends the way it did today, I will definitely, definitely remember this situation when I’m in the weight room. Who knows? I may be playing this on TV when I’m in the weight room for motivation.”
A lead that once had been 5-1 with Clay Buchholz on the mound, and which had been nicely preserved by Daniel Bard (whose two innings of stellar relief work put a cap on a fine rookie season), was still pretty safe at 5-2 when Papelbon was summoned with men on second and third and two away in the eighth.
It wasn’t as if Wagner had been knocked around, by the way. Bobby Abreu had begun the inning with a short-hopper to Kevin Youkilis that caromed off the first baseman and into the photographer’s well for a weird ground-rule double. With one out, Guerrero walked (when did Vladi start channeling Eddie Yost, may I ask?), and the runners moved up on a Kendry Morales grounder to second.
Francona brought in a rested Papelbon for a four-out save, but things got hot immediately when Rivera ripped Pap’s first pitch into right-center, reducing the lead to 5-4. Pap then picked off pinch runner Reggie Willits, and got the ninth off to a good start with Maicer Izturis’s foul pop to Victor Martinez and pinch hitter Gary Matthews’s routine fly to center.
But Aybar is not your typical No.9 hitter. He’s a No.9 hitter who hit .312 at the bottom of a very dangerous batting order. With Papelbon continually attempting to pitch middle-away, Aybar put a good swing on the 0-and-2 pitch and lined a single.
Aybar soon took second on defensive indifference and Chone Figgins, at that moment a lifetime 0 for 12 with six punchouts against Papelbon, walked. Now Papelbon was in real trouble because the next man up was Abreu, who already had been on base eight times in the series and who had been certifiably robbed twice.
Abreu is a pro’s pro, and he already had figured out that Papelbon did not have his real good stuff.
”I just knew that any fastball away, it would be something good to hit, hit the ball the other way, especially on the big wall,” Abreu said. “So I took my chances on that, and [I was] successful.”
Quite successful. It was a run-scoring double, and the only mystery was why the fleet Figgins didn’t score, too.
Now given a choice between having Papelbon face Torii Hunter (”Probably 3 for 7 with a homer, I guess,” said Francona), the skipper ordered Hunter walked to load the bases for Guerrero.
”I guess, put it in a nutshell, we thought it would put us in a better chance to win,” Francona explained. “It didn’t work.”
Guerrero may be aging and fading, but he still knows what he’s doing up there and he drilled Papelbon’s first pitch into right-center, bringing home Figgins with the tying run and Abreu with the winner.
Francona came to the mound, took the baseball, and Jonathan Papelbon’s 2009 season was over.
”I’m gonna use this as fuel,” he promised.