The champagne showers, the Riverdance, the parades, the kilt, and above all the World Series are all the memories that rushed back to Jonathan Papelbon when he returned to Fenway Park Monday for the first time since leaving the Red Sox for Philadelphia and the four-year $50 million contract the Phillies lured him with in November of 2011.
But a season and a half with the Phillies has made those memories fond but distant. He’s 32 now, seven years older than the pitcher who went to the All-Star game and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in his first full season, six years older than the one whose four postseason saves helped the Sox win the World Series in 2007.
“It does seem like a long time ago,” Papelbon said. “A lot of great memories, man. I’ve turned the page and it’s hard.”
He is a more evolved pitcher now, he says, after a season and a half in Philadelphia. He’s no longer the pitcher who would hear the power chords of Dropkick Murphys “I’m Shipping Up To Boston,” charge out of the bullpen, and try to blow flames past hitters. Now his ninth-inning anthem is Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” and he tries less to overpower and more to pitch.
“I think a lot has changed in the last couple years for me,” Papelbon said. “I’ve become more of a complete pitcher and not just a thrower. Last year and a half in Philly, I’m really starting to become more of a complete pitcher in my mind and not just a thrower that goes out there and tries to blow it by everybody.”
The approach has changed but the success hasn’t. He left Boston having saved more games than any pitcher in franchise history (219).
Last season, Papelbon’s 38 saves gave him seven straight seasons with at least 30, a run that put him in the company of Troy Percival, Rob Nen, Trevor Hoffman, and the gold standard for closers, Mariano Rivera. Entering Monday night’s game, he was on a run of 17⅔ scoreless innings. He said he’s paying more attention to detail than the radar gun.
“I think I read swings more, I look at swings more, I do a little bit more of that instead of going out there and saying, ‘I’m going to blow it by these guys,’ ” he said. “In this game, you’ve got to make adjustments, and I feel like I’ve made an adjustment now to be more of a complete pitcher, and I think that’s what kind of propelled me into the later parts of my career.”
Papelbon was showered with an ovation after the first inning, when his image was flashed across the center field scoreboard. He tipped his cap.
“It’s an absolute thrill to be here, to play in this park again, and to hopefully get on the mound here and pitch,” Papelbon said.
“I think this is one of my all-time favorite mounds to pitch off of and obviously, you know the crowd will be intense tonight. It’s fun to play here.
“Obviously our championships we won here, the memories of pitching in so many situations where the game was on the line and having fun with it. I think every time I took the mound here it was fun.”
Red Sox manager John Farrell said Papelbon always had a closer’s makeup.
“He’s got a very good short-term memory,” Farrell said. “With the days that don’t go well, he puts them behind him. People recognize Pap as the closer. You’re talking about an exceptional athlete that can channel that adrenaline and that emotion to commanding his fastball. When you see his ability to command a mid-90s fastball to the locations that he does for as long as he has, not to mention a very good split. Someone who’s physically durable, strong, and a very good athlete. He’s got the presence of mind in those situations to channel the adrenaline. He’s a rare, rare pitcher.”
The efforts the Sox have made to replace him have made that clear.
Since Papelbon left, the Sox have struggled to find the same reliability in a closer. Between Bobby Jenks, Andrew Bailey, and Joel Hanrahan, it’s been a revolving door.
Jenks, who was brought in while Papelbon was still in Boston, was thought to be a low-cost option in case Papelbon decided to leave. But he appeared in just 19 games in 2011 before injuries ended his career. The Sox traded for Bailey in December of 2011, but he missed the first four months of the 2012 season after tearing a ligament in his thumb in spring training. This past offseason they dealt for Pirates closer Hanrahan, who was shut down earlier this month, needing Tommy John surgery.
The money spent the past two years trying to replace Papelbon is nearly equal to the $24 million he’s earned so far with the Phillies.
“I don’t know that you can say there was regret,” Farrell said. “He obviously got a heck of an opportunity and a heck of a deal in Philly. I was talking to someone about this the other day. He closed here [full time] for six straight years. I don’t know that you’re going to see many closers do that in any market for any team. Because that means they came up through the system or converted to a closer and they’ve held down that job until free agency took them elsewhere.
“What he did here was very rare. Not to mention the success but the length of time in which he did it.”