BOSTON -- Four years later, Bill James' message is finally getting through. Of course, it helps to have a messenger like Jonathan Papelbon. Right now, the 26-year-old right-hander has to be baseball's biggest deterrent, a one-man SWAT team; he strides into the middle of trouble, and everyone flees the room. You don't keep a weapon like that holstered. You don't save him for last call.
James, the renowned baseball numbers-cruncher, was in his first season as Boston's senior baseball operations advisor when he asked rookie general manager Theo Epstein to please forget about the neoclassic role of closers. His advice boiled down to this: Game-saving moments can happen any time, not just in the ninth. Terry Francona wasn't yet the Boston manager at the time, but he was in the eighth inning on Friday night, when Vladimir Guerrero left the on-deck circle with one out, representing the Angels' potential tying run. "You don't want to leave one of the premier weapons in the game not in the game," Francona would later say, a fractured explanation that somehow made perfect sense. "We don't ever want to lose a game when we've got a guy like that out there." So Francona trashed the button so many managers push automatically, and he went with his silver bullet. Bullet it was. Papelbon's first pitch clocked 94 mph, as did the second. The next accelerated to 96 mph. Guerrero fouled off all three, merely meaning that he was looking up from an 0-and-2 hole. Papelbon dialed it up to 97 mph. Guerrero swung lustily and again got a piece of the ball -- but not a big enough piece to veer it out of catcher Doug Mirabelli's mitt, where it lodged for the strikeout. "It's a situation where I'm supposed to go out there and get outs. Do my job," Papelbon said. "That's what I do. It seemed normal to me." Two pitches later, Garret Anderson lined to left -- into the lights, but also into Manny Ramirez's glove -- and Papelbon walked off having preserved Boston's 4-1 lead. Without argument, he had thrown the six most important pitches of the night's 277. And you know what? He got nothing out of it, if you discount immense satisfaction and a clubhouse full of pats on the back. Because once Big Pap was done, Big Papi and the rest of the lineup got serious. David Ortiz's two-run double touched off a surge that widened the lead to 10-1. Even before Guerrero could throw Ortiz's double back into the infield, Francona walked up to Papelbon, sitting on the bench, and told him he could take off his game face. "We'll save you for tomorrow," Francona told his fireman. Thus, Mike Timlin closed out a game that didn't officially award a save. But try telling anyone who saw or heard it that Papelbon hadn't saved it, and you'd get laughed out into the street. "Nah, I don't care about that. Not really, man," Papelbon said. "The way I look at it, I went out there and did my job. I got the outs I needed to get. "With our lineup, that could possibly happen again. And I have no problem with it." For the record, this was Papelbon's third appearance of the season, and the second time he was paged in the eighth inning. The first time he threw an eighth-inning lifeline, on Sunday in Texas, he had to hang around for the ninth to close out a 3-2 win over the Rangers. Saves in the first two appearances left him with 37 in 44 chances, with a sub-1.00 ERA, for his nascent career as a reliever. It was supposed to be a brief career, of course, as he spent most of Spring Training preparing to join the Red Sox rotation. But Boston's search for a replacement closer wasn't going so well, and one day Papelbon proposed resuming the job. Presumably, Francona's reaction went something like this: "Let me think about it for ... a nanosecond ... Yes! Thank you! Yippee!" As a starter, Papelbon would have joined the chorus. Instead he is back up front, belting out those 97-mph notes. Oddly, though, he has been on a starter's schedule. Thanks to some bad weather and some bad games, he has pitched on April 5, Sunday and Thursday. He has made a total of 34 pitches -- 29 of them strikes -- and has gotten a total of 10 outs, six of them on strikes. "He doesn't impress me anymore," Ortiz said. "This guy's something else. He must be from another planet." Being an alien might explain the bravado of feeding nothing but fastballs to a man who hits them hard and far. "Yeah, he may be the only guy in the league that can challenge Vladi like that," Ortiz concurred. Don't dismiss Guerrero's part in that fight, said Mirabelli, Boston's catcher. "He fouled off balls most people wouldn't have come close to," Mirabelli said. "He even got a piece of that last one. "But Paps ... oh, my. His fastball is electric. It's got a lot of life through the strike zone. It stays true -- there isn't a lot of sink to it -- but it's electric." Sometimes, James had suggested, you have to plug it in and let the juice flow earlier than the ninth. This definitely was one of those times, and Francona knows that the hardest part of having such a silver bullet is knowing when to put it in the chamber. "There's still a lot of anxiety on my part. I haven't figured it all out," he said. "John [Farrell, the pitching coach] and I talk about it all the time. "It won't be perfect. But we'll think it through and try to have a game plan." How's this for a plan: When in late trouble, wave to the bullpen.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.