CLEARWATER, Fla. - His body of work as a closer for the Red Sox had its warts, but overall you can’t deny that he has been one of the best in baseball.
Which is why the respected talent evaluators of the Philadelphia Phillies discarded their own guys (Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge) and made Jonathan Papelbon the highest-paid reliever in baseball with a stunning four-year, $50 million deal in the offseason.
People tend to be opinionated about Papelbon and his new contract, which some believe is far too much for a closer. He was a guy who said a few dumb things along the way, but he was one of the most committed players on the Red Sox, and that includes last year’s team.
Papelbon now is being asked to preserve wins for a very talented rotation led by Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels. The three of them are thrilled to have Papelbon on the team.
“I like pressure,’’ said Papelbon. “That’s what makes me tick, man. I’m excited. Pitching in this environment is one that I enjoy.’’
To move forward, he will, for a while, be asked to look back.
Great closers aren’t supposed to blow the biggest game of the year. But that’s what Papelbon did that fateful night of Sept. 28 in the bottom of the ninth at Baltimore.
Holding a 3-2 lead, Papelbon struck out Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds. But Chris Davis doubled, and Papelbon went 2-and-2 on Nolan Reimold - one strike away - before Reimold doubled to right to tie the game. On a 1-and-1 pitch to Robert Andino, the second baseman singled to left to score the winning run.
Moments later in St. Petersburg, Fla., Evan Longoria stroked a game-winning homer at Tropicana Field, putting the Rays in the playoffs and ending Boston’s season.
Asked whether he thinks about that pitch to Andino, Papelbon said sarcastically, “Every day, all day.
“I don’t think about it at all, man. When I was a rookie and I made my first All-Star Game, I had a chance to talk to Mo [Mariano Rivera] and I asked him, ‘What’s the first thing I need to do to make me successful in this game?’ And the first thing he said was, ‘Short-term memory.’
“You have to be able to learn from that situation, but I don’t go out there and think about it all spring. You go over things but you have to be able to turn the page.’’
The Sox’ month-long collapse brought out negative revelations that indicated a lack of commitment by the players.
Papelbon was never part of that problem.
“Everybody has had their own opinion about what went on there,’’ said Papelbon. “Nobody truly knows what was going on. Just because a team struggles or somebody struggles doesn’t mean they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
“I’ve always said that when you win, it cures everything. When you lose, there’s got to be a reason why you lose.
“Is that why we lost? No.’’
Papelbon said he never saw anyone slacking and that he never had to go up to a teammate to tell him to pick it up.
“I never saw that,’’ he said. “I was busy preparing myself to get into the game.’’
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel likes to use his closers often, especially with the starting staff he has. But Papelbon was well-managed in Boston, and the wear and tear on his shoulder isn’t severe.
Papelbon said he chose Philadelphia not only for the contract but because it is similar to Boston.
“You look around the clubhouse, and it seems every other locker has a superstar in it,’’ he said. “For me, I’m not going to try to compare one clubhouse to another. I’m going to try to come into this clubhouse and do my job, jump on board, and follow everybody else and learn the ways of Philadelphia Phillies baseball.’’
He knows from facing the Phillies that “they go to war and grind out wins together.’’
Papelbon also had his opinions on the Red Sox. Asked about his former set-up man, Daniel Bard, being converted to a starter, he said, “I actually had a long talk with Daniel about that. I’m excited to see what he can do.
“In my opinion, there’s no reason he can’t start. Daniel can do whatever he wants to do, he’s that good. He’s matured into a phenomenal pitcher. He’s only going to get better.’’
And of his own failed bid to become a starter in spring training in 2007, he said, “I had to go with what I felt like I was going to be successful with for 162 games. For me, when I asked myself that question, it was closing.
“That’s just what drives me. It’s what gets me up and makes me want to go to work, and I couldn’t ignore that. That’s the day I went into the office in spring training and discussed it with Theo [Epstein] and Tito [Francona].’’
He feels new closer Andrew Bailey will be helped by the intensity in Boston, that he’ll feel the rush from the packed houses at Fenway even on days when “he feels like he doesn’t have life in his body.’’
Papelbon had mixed feeling about being out of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.
“It got kind of old,’’ he said. “ ‘I gotta face Jeter again. He’s seen everything I got. I’ve seen everything he’s got.’
“It brings a little bit of life being in a new clubhouse and facing new guys and playing the game of baseball the National League way. A little more strategy, a little more than it was in American League.’’
Papelbon said it was much too early to discuss facing the Red Sox in the World Series. One thing he knows is that he’ll remain lifelong friends with many of them.
“I wish them the best of luck,’’ he said. “Even last night, with [Tim] Wakefield. It hit home for me a little bit. Wakefield and Tek [Jason Varitek] - these are the guys I came into the clubhouse as a rookie and learned how to play and respect the game of baseball. Those guys will always hold a special place in my heart.’’
After a successful career in Boston, Papelbon moves on to another World Series champion. And he does so as the highest-paid reliever in baseball.
“It doesn’t mean anything to me,’’ he said. “It’s not a personal goal to be the highest-paid closer.
“I do take a lot of pride in that this is a role that is relatively new and is now starting to get recognized as an important role and how important it is in baseball.
“Mariano set the bar and started making everybody realize how important it is, and I just want to carry that on. It has nothing to do with monetary value and how much you’re getting paid.
“It’s a small fraternity of guys. We all look out for each other. We all root for each other.’’Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, the half-inning in which the Baltimore Orioles rallied to beat the Red Sox in the final regular-season game of the 2011 season was incorrect in an earlier version of this story. The rally took place in the bottom of the ninth.