On July 28, the Red Sox lost to the Oakland Athletics 9-8. For us Sox fans, this could not have been a surprise, even though the team had gone into the 9th with a 7-4 lead. After all, the team's once dominant closer, Jonathan Papelbon, had looked anything but for much of the season. Sure, it was only his third blown save, but the way he was pitching those numbers were clearly unsustainable. Papelbon had seemingly made it his mission to make every save a dramatic one as he would pull such feats as loading the bases with 0 outs before striking out the next 3, or letting the tieing run get to 3rd with 1 out and stranding him there.
Papelbon's ERA was great, living always slightly above or below 2, but his WHIP was sky high and it wasn't hard to see the problem: walks. In 69 innings in 2008, Papelbon walked all of 8 batters, and never in his career (excepting 2005) had his BB/9 been above 2.31. In 2009, things were different, as through the end of June he had walked 17 batters in only 34 innings, nearly doubling his highest rate.
Speculation ran rampant. Was Papelbon saving his arm for the postseason? For a future contract? Did he simply lack focus in non-save situations? For whatever reason, Papelbon was just not the same. He still struck out plenty of guys, he just didn't seem to have that pinpoint control anymore.
And then the old Papelbon returned.
That game in July? That was Papelbon's last blown save. Since then, he has given up walks in only 2 games out of 23 (3 in one against the Toronto Blue Jays). In the 25 innings he's pitched in those games, he has struck out 31 batters and given up only 15 hits. His WHIP, for those not doing the math as they go, stands at .76 over that stretch, and his ERA at 1.44.
So what was the problem with Papelbon? Is he really that much worse when the game isn't close? Was he really trying to save himself for a future contract? If you ask Paps, he'll tell you it was his delivery. He had changed it at the beginning of the season, and was having trouble repeating it consistently. The biggest casualty of the change was his splitter, a pitch that nearly disappeared as the year went on, and one he now claims to be much more comfortable with. Now that he's able to repeat his delivery, Papelbon has regained his control in a hurry.
For a playoff-bound Red Sox team, this has to be a huge relief. After all, since 2007, the Sox have been able to play 8-inning postseason games. Papelbon is perfectly aware that the reputation he earns in October is the one that will stick to his name well after his career is over, and if he's been a dominant regular season closer, he has been untouchable in the playoffs. In 25 innings, Papelbon has allowed 10 hits, 6 walks, recorded 22 strikeouts, and let a total of 0 men cross home plate.
For the Red Sox, there are a number of question marks going into the playoffs, but the ninth inning couldn't be any more simple.