Two different styles, same end result

Tale of two different closers in ALCS

BOSTON -- One closer fires fastballs that power into the upper 90s. The other throws a fastball that hits the lower 90s, just hard enough to set up his other stuff.

One was named the DHL Delivery Man of the Year on Thursday. The other delivered his outs through the air on his own.

One recently revealed that he battles with migraine headaches. The other has been known to create enough anxiety for fan headaches on occasion when he's on the mound.

Clear enough? The Red Sox's Jonathan Papelbon and the Indians' Joe Borowski are about as differently styled as two closers can be, and they have some equally vast contrasts in the secondary stat columns. Yet they have one big similarity, racking up a lot of saves to help lead their teams into the American League Championship Series. Given how closely matched Boston and Cleveland appear to be in so many areas, two closers that take different routes to the same result could have a deciding impact on this series, both in results and momentum.

At this point, they just want the save, no matter how pretty the pitches look.

"They're guys that can get three outs," Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell said, "and that's the key. Although, if you ask Joe if he'd prefer throwing 98 [mph], I'm sure he'd say he would."

Actually, Borowski said he'd be happy to have half the stuff that Papelbon can throw. Their similarity in saves levels out some of the differences. But which one led the American League? Not the one in the first half of all those comparisons.

"The guy's gotten more than 45 saves this year," Papelbon said of his Cleveland counterpart. "I think the guy's doing the job pretty darn good."

One question after another on Thursday morning, the young, fireballing Papelbon was asked to compare himself with the older, craftier Borowski. At no point did Papelbon veer from praise for his counterpart. He's not taking the notion that being younger, throwing harder and basically looking more intimidating in his overall game gives him an advantage.

"I'm going out there doing my job, and I'm going out there trying to help my ballclub, just like he's going out there trying to help his ballclub," Papelbon said. "I think they have a ballclub that has put a lot of runs on the board this year, so he's had a lot of chances. He's obviously come through a lot this year, that's for sure."

It takes very little effort to appreciate what Papelbon means to the Red Sox. At 26 years old, he has secured himself in what used to rank among the most pressure-packed revolving doors in baseball. Where Heathcliff Slocumb, Keith Foulke, Ugueth Urbina and Byung-Hyun Kim came and went, Papelbon became the first pitcher in Boston's history to record back-to-back 30-save seasons.

Papelbon doesn't simply finish off hitters, he dominates them. He had the lowest batting average allowed and highest ratio of strikeouts per inning of any reliever in the Majors. Not only did he blow just three of his 40 save opportunities all season, he was charged with runs in just nine of his 59 appearances.

The only time in his career when he was out of the closer's job was by injury or by preference, when he briefly wanted to work as a starter. That's another luxury of Papelbon's game that Borowski would love to have. But having to battle for what he's got, rebounding from setbacks in games and his career along the way, has arguably defined the 36-year-old since a Spring Training injury to Antonio Alfonseca gave him a chance to close with the Cubs in 2003.

"I just fell into it," Borowski said. "It happened kind of by mistake, and when I did blow up, I was able to come back and not have it affect me. So it's not like I would string together a lot of blown saves in a row, have real bad weeks or anything like that.

"After I had a taste of it and I started seeing it, you grow hungry for it, and I just wanted to keep doing it. It's almost like your adrenaline, when you're pitching, just shoots up when you get into that role. I got it, and that's what I want to do."

It's almost fitting that Borowski led the league this season in both blown saves and converted ones. Of his eight blown chances this season, he didn't do it in consecutive appearances until the final week of the season, for what that's worth.

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Borowski doesn't have the stuff to avoid contact, but when he's on, he has the ability to try to control it. Over 80 percent of opponents' swings made contact against him this year, according to research on baseball-reference.com, and opponents hit .289 against him. His aggressiveness yielded nine home runs over 65 2/3 innings, including five homers that changed the lead or tied the gmae.

Yet his value might well have been typified by his return performance at Yankee Stadium to clinch the AL Division Series on Monday. Taking the mound for the ninth inning with a three-run lead, he gave a one-out solo homer to Bobby Abreu to cut the lead to 6-4. Then Jorge Posada launched a long drive that landed foul in the right-field upper deck.

Instead of pitching around him, Borowski went after him again and struck him out on the next pitch to send the Indians on to the ALCS. It wasn't pretty, but it was effective.

There's precedence for that in the postseason. A year ago, Todd Jones spent most of the season listening to comparisons between himself and Detroit's young flamethrower, Joel Zumaya, despite recording 37 saves. All Jones did was rack up four saves in the playoffs, including two in the ALCS to help the Tigers reach the World Series.

"It doesn't matter what anybody thinks about me," Borowski said. "The only people I worry about is my team and coaching staff."

Borowski's boss knows the difference.

"I think there are a handful of true closers in the game -- guys who throw mid-90s with a plus out-pitch," Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said. "Then there are guys who pitch the ninth. What Joe does is put himself in the elite group of guys who pitch the ninth, because they handle the blown save better than the other guys who handle the blown save.

"Joe can distance himself and separate from a bad day, come back the next day and get the job done. They don't give the hitters too much credit. They make the hitters beat them, and they play the odds that these guys are going to get themselves out 75 percent of the time. He's among the best teammates in our clubhouse. The guys rally behind him. It's not traditional. It's tough to stomach sometimes seeing a mid-80s or high-80s fastball. But it gets the job done."

Or as Papelbon put it, "I think he's got [courage]. You've got to have that."

In the end, Borowski and Papelbon need the same thing -- three outs in the ninth.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.