Fueled by doubters, Papelbon having big year

Fueled by doubters, Papelbon having big year

Fueled by doubters, Papelbon having big year
MINNEAPOLIS -- Remember those days back in March, when Jonathan Papelbon was one of the players you deemed a question mark when it came to the 2011 Red Sox?

An ace closer for most of his career, Papelbon had blown a career-high eight saves in 2010. The 3.90 ERA the righty went home with was easily the worst he had posted.

And then came the 2011 Grapefruit League season, when Papelbon was decidedly worse than ordinary, posting a 9.00 ERA in eight outings.

If you were one of the people who doubted Papelbon, he'd probably send you a thank you card.

Or maybe his alter ego will send it for him.

"Cinco Ocho loves haters," Papelbon said. "He loves to drink the Haterade, man. That's what Cinco Ocho fuels his engine with -- Haterade."

To Papelbon, the Haterade is any kind of slight or doubt that comes from the outside.

"Some people in this clubhouse need to be told how great they are to go out there and succeed," Papelbon said. "I like to be told I can't do something. Cinco Ocho needs to be told he stinks, and then he just takes the Haterade and fuels his engine. That's how he works, man. That's the God's honest truth."

Here's another God's honest truth -- Papelbon is having his best season in years.

The fact that the resurgence comes following the worst year of Papelbon's career -- and in the final season of his contract -- makes it all the more noteworthy.

Papelbon will enjoy Thursday's off-day in Seattle -- the first the Red Sox have had since July 21 -- with the best save streak of his career. The righty has been successful in his last 21 save opportunities, topping the 20 he had converted to start his rookie year in 2006. For the season, Papelbon has 26 saves in 27 opportunities.

"Cinco Ocho loves haters. He loves to drink the Haterade, man. That's what Cinco Ocho fuels his engine with -- Haterade."
-- Jonathan Papelbon

For all the Cinco Ocho bluster, Papelbon will talk calmly about the keys to his rejuvenation on those days he's in a more serious mood.

"I feel like I'm hitting my stride," Papelbon said. "I think, after last year, I had to make my adjustment this year."

A lot of it has come in the weight room, for sessions that only Papelbon and Red Sox strength and conditioning coach Dave Page have been present for. The results have been there for all the baseball world to see when he takes the mound.

"Just the experience of learning how to coordinate with Page in the weight room, knowing when to push the gas and push the brake, that's been huge," Papelbon said. "Me and him sat down in Spring Training, and we came up with a really good recipe to stay strong throughout the season and feel good. Experience is the main thing."

When Papelbon notched that 21st successive save on Tuesday night at Target Field, it was the third straight day he had worked.

But unlike last year, when Papelbon appeared to labor when he was working for the second or third day in a row, he cruised.

"I felt strong, I felt good," Papelbon said. "I felt the ball was coming out of my hand good. I'm just trying to repeat my daily routine and repeat my daily delivery, and that's it."

Terry Francona, the only manager Papelbon has played for in the Majors, has made note of his closer's improvement.

"His fastball has real good finish," Francona said. "Remember last year, there were times he had to kind of climb back into the count? Ball one, ball two. Most of the time he'd figure it out, but he'd have to work. Because he's not having to work so hard now, he's bouncing back better."

Aside from the conditioning, the other crucial element to Papelbon's rebound has been his improved mechanics, which has led to better command.

For someone who likes to appear flaky, Papelbon is obsessive about his delivery as much as -- or more than -- any pitcher on the Red Sox.

"I've been able to repeat my delivery better this year, for sure," Papelbon said. "That goes without saying. If I can repeat my delivery on a nightly basis, I should be pretty good."

While Papelbon's 3.14 ERA doesn't compare with his best two seasons -- 2006 and '07 -- a closer look at the numbers reveals that he might be nearly as dominant when it matters.

In save situations this season, Papelbon has a 2.30 ERA. In 22 non-save situations, he's at 4.22. Papelbon has been unscored on in 37 of the 49 games he's pitched.

Much like in the days of his youth, his fastball is again exploding through the strike zone. His splitter and slider have also been highly useful pitches for him.

"I know I'm 30 years old right now, but I feel stronger than I really have in seven seasons of big league baseball," Papelbon said. "That comes with experience. I feel like, too, that, this year, when it's a 2-0 count or a 1-0 count and the hitters know it's a fastball coming, I've been able to still throw my fastball and get outs with it. That's a huge, huge part of pitching. My delivery is better, and therefore I'm finishing it better. It's a domino effect."

Which way will the dominoes fall in November when Papelbon becomes a free agent for the first time?

Red Sox fans will probably be glad to hear this -- Papelbon says his focus is one of tunnel vision as the pennant race starts to intensify.

"I really don't think about it, man. I don't," said Papelbon, when asked about his uncertain future. "A lot of people ask me that, too. Cinco Ocho is the kind of person that lives in the moment, man. He doesn't really think about the future. He doesn't really think about the past. He's kind of on a one-way train. It's hard for Cinco Ocho to really think that far ahead."

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brownie Points, and follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.