"[Closing] is something that I want to do, that makes me happy to show up at the ballpark every day and be able to make the 162-game grind," said Papelbon "To me, whatever makes me happy and gets my juices going every day, I've got to follow my heart and do that, because that's what makes me a successful pitcher."
After taking over the closer's job in the third game of the season last year, Papelbon converted 35 of his 41 save opportunities. His 0.92 ERA was the eighth lowest in Major League history among pitchers with at least 50 innings.
He was shut down Sept. 1 after suffering a subluxation of the right shoulder, prompting the Sox to move him into the starting rotation and to launch a search for a new closer, bringing in right-handers Brendan Donnelly and Joel Pineiro and lefty J.C. Romero, along with setup man Mike Timlin, to contend for the job. None of those candidates seemed to be the right fit for the closer's job, though.
"I was kind of thinking about it," Papelbon said. "I was kind of just seeing what [the Red Sox] were doing, what they weren't doing. I think because [the thought of closing] came along more and more, I kind of just went to Tito, and I said, 'Tito, I can't sleep at night. If you want to give me the ball in the ninth, I want to take it.'"
After discussing the bullpen's status with general manager Theo Epstein and pitching coach John Farrell, Francona met with his relievers [Thursday], before the decision was made public.
"We just got deeper," Francona said of his reconstituted bullpen. "The idea is to shorten games if you can. J.C. Romero has actually been throwing the ball terrific. [Left-hander Hideki] Okajima is becoming very effective. Pineiro, we think, is going to be a solid, solid bullpen guy. Mike Timlin, [sidelined with a strained left oblique], we all know. We just got to get him on the mound.
"All of a sudden, you start naming some names like that and you get pretty deep. You have a chance to maybe win every night. Not that you're going to win 162, but you give yourselves a chance when it's 4-2 in the seventh to win that game, because we have a good offense. We explained that to those guys [Thursday] morning. We get into the sixth, seventh, eighth inning, we got a chance to win."
Which suits Papelbon's bullpen mates just fine, giving the team a far stronger bullpen than it started Spring Training with.
"Oh, I think it's night and day," Pineiro said. "Now, teams got to watch out for us, because from that seventh inning on, you have five or six guys who can dominate all the way through. You got to hand the ball off to each other, then Timlin then Papelbon closing. I think it's the best thing that could have happened to this team."
"It's great," Romero said. "It's a good decision. Whatever you can do to help the team. I think that he felt that he was going to help the team more in the bullpen, and we're happy that he decided to join us in the bullpen. I think we were going to have a good bullpen before that decision. So, I think our bullpen just got better with that. We're happy."
Papelbon said this latest job change would be his last, as he plans to close for the next 10 to 12 years, chasing records and one day, hopefully, entering the Hall of Fame as a closer.
While his move to the 'pen not only solidifies the relief corps, it also helps to clarify certain roles.
"I know I'm going to be, from the sixth to the eighth, I'm going to be pitching somewhere," Romero said. "So, all we can do is get ready from the fifth inning all the way to the eighth. Our role as a unit -- Pineiro, myself, Timlin, all those guys -- our role is just to close that gap from the starting pitcher to the closer, now that we have one. So, we're trying to simplify everything. We're trying not to get caught up in what my specific role will be and we're just trying to contribute. As long as we contribute in a positive way, that's all we can ask for."
"It doesn't mean anything different for me," Donnelly said. "My job is still the same. My role has been defined before I got here: When I get the ball, [I have to] get people out."
"There's no question [the bullpen is] stronger now. Now we can all fall into place, which is what we've been waiting for from the get-go -- Pap being the closer, doing what he did last year, doing what he did so well a year ago. Everybody's going to be in a role that they've done before. He's the best guy for the job in the ninth inning, and he's proven that he can do it."
Papelbon said his undertaking as closer this year will be different than last season, taking a more conservative approach with limited innings. Last season, he worked more than one inning in 18 of his 59 appearances, including season highs of 2 1/3 innings twice -- April 21 in Toronto and June 24 against the Phillies.
He also pitched on consecutive days 17 times in 2006, going 1-0, with 14 saves and a 0.51 ERA in the back end of those games.
Papelbon said this season, while he would not be on a pitch count, he will pitch just one inning a game, only in save situations, and would not enter games prior to the ninth inning or in tie games.
"I'll get the ninth inning," he said. "I'll get the ball when it's a save opportunity.
"It's really easy if you think about it. If you look at the way [Yankees manager] Joe Torre's managed [closer Mariano] Rivera, it's going to be very similar to that. It's going to be very similar to how he's gone out and been able to do it for so many years. Yeah, he's had his little bumps and bruises here along the way, maybe a little tendinitis in the elbow, but nothing major."
And that should also help Papelbon sleep well.