It was a long time between save opportunities for the Phillies’ Jonathan Papelbon. Since May 24 Papelbon really had no need to warm up for the ninth inning, since there were no games to save.
Maybe that’s why he decided to let Tuesday’s night’s chance against the San Diego Padres linger a little longer than he should have. Entering the ninth with a three-run lead, Papelbon loaded the bases with two outs before finally closing it down with a ground ball by Tommy Medica (see game recap).
No harm, no foul.
And with that tightrope act, Papelbon became the 26th pitcher in big-league history to register 300 saves. Moreover, he did it in fewer games than anyone except for Trevor Hoffman.
Fittingly, Papelbon got No. 300 against Hoffman’s former team.
Nevertheless, Papelbon’s journey to 300 saves wasn’t exactly quixotic, though it wasn’t without its detours. A starter in the minors, Papelbon successfully lobbied Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein to move him to the closer role.
Perhaps closing games is what has kept Papelbon off the disabled list for his entire 10 years in the big leagues.
“It means a lot to me, more than what most people would probably think,” Papelbon said after escaping with his 14th save of the season. “I started this a long time ago and I was supposed to be a starter. Theo Epstein wanted to make me a starter and I told him I didn’t want to be a starter. It’s been a long journey since then. I don’t know how happy he was when I told him I wanted to do that, but it’s all turned out the way I expected it and hoped it would. I got to keep working hard and keep putting in the work to stay healthy and hopefully try to get another 300 if I stay healthy.”
In Phillies history, closers have been more like Haley’s Comet than Old Faithful. Jose Mesa has the franchise record with 112 saves, notching 87 of them in his first two seasons with the team. Brad Lidge left Philly with 100 saves and 41 of them came during that magical 2008 season.
With 81 saves in a little more than two seasons and a contract that runs through 2015 with a vesting option for 2016, Papelbon could blow past Mesa’s record. Considering Papelbon’s ability to stay off the disabled list, there’s no reason why he can’t match Hoffman’s mark of 601 saves. After all, Hoffman got all but 10 of his saves in 14 of his 18 seasons and missed nearly all of the 2003 season on the disabled list.
Though Papelbon has lost a little off his fastball and he struggled in Tuesday’s game, he has converted all but one of his save chances this season. Better yet, Papelbon has posted a 1.48 ERA and has 12 1-2-3 innings in his 25 appearances.
Despite this, Papelbon’s strikeout rate is at a career low and his walk rate has doubled since last season. However, Papelbon has allowed just two extra-base hits this season and has held the opposition to a .195 batting average. Even at the start of his career when he was taking over the role as closer for the Red Sox, Papelbon only held opponents to a lower batting average just once.
So how does he stay healthy and convert saves even though his fastball isn’t as sharp?
Easy. It’s all upstairs, Papelbon said.
“It’s a mental grind and you have to stay focused the best you can,” Papelbon said. “There is no way to really duplicate a game-on-the-line type situation, but for me I just try to stay focused. It’s more mental than physical.
“That’s one of the main reasons why I decided to become a closer. I don’t know why, but I like the rollercoaster ride and it is what it is. I like coming to the yard every day knowing I have a chance to go in there or not. It’s hard to explain.”
It also helps that the closer’s role is much more refined than it once was. Papelbon, Hoffman and the all-time saves leader, Mariano Rivera, rarely pitch more than one inning. Bruce Sutter, the Hall of Fame pitcher who finished his career with 300 saves in 12 seasons, rarely worked so little. In fact, in his 661 games, Sutter pitched more than one inning 407 times.
In 1984, Sutter appeared in a career-high 71 games and pitched 122 innings. Papelbon got to 131 innings in his first 131 games with the Phillies.
For that, Papelbon gave praise to Rivera for redefining the role and allowing pitchers like himself to save more games and have longer careers.
“The closer’s role is what it is today because of Mariano Rivera. There is no other man that is solely responsible for it but him,” Papelbon said. “In my opinion, he made the role what it is today and I’ve told him many a time that he’s the godfather of all closers. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be in this type of situation today. When I was in Boston, I used to joke with him all the time. He’d come back for another year and play and it seemed like he had some kind of fountain of youth over there in Panama. He made it harder and harder for me every year. Everyone’s chasing him, so hopefully one day I can get somewhere close to him and we’ll see what happens if I can stay healthy.”
It’s worth noting that Mesa ceded the closer’s role to Mike Williams at the end of his tenure in Philadelphia. And Lidge gave way to Ryan Madson at the end of his time in town. Working on his third season, Papelbon isn’t looking over his shoulder yet.