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The Closer
As the highest-paid relief pitcher in baseball, the newest Phillie Jonathan Papelbon not only welcomes the pressure, he needs it.

by Peter Proko

 

On Oct. 7 of last year, everything came to a screeching halt.

 

After a record-setting regular season for the franchise in which they won 102 games, the Philadelphia Phillies championship hopes were dashed in devastating fashion following a mind-numbing first-round playoff loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in which they failed to score a single run during a decisive Game 5. It was in many ways as memorable, though for much different reasons, as the 2008 World Series run. This time however, instead of Brad Lidge celebrating the last out on his knees experiencing pure ecstasy; it was Ryan Howard sprawled out along the first baseline writhing in pure agony, having just torn his Achilles on the final swing of 2011. 

A week and a half earlier, Jonathan Papelbon’s season came to an even more abrupt end nearly 100 miles south of Philadelphia. The Boston Red Sox closer had just blown a save against the Baltimore Orioles, the final nail in the coffin of a late-season swoon that would keep them from the playoffs for the second consecutive year.

 

It would be the last time Papelbon donned a Boston uniform.

 

Eager for change, Papelbon entered free agency this past winter as the most coveted relief pitcher in a market full of recognizable names, one of them being former Phillie Ryan Madson. With his track record for success (219 career saves and a World Series ring), the fiery right-hander was too attractive for a legitimate championship contender like the Phillies to overlook. On Nov. 11, just a little more than a month after the disappointment of that October night, Papelbon signed a four-year, $50 million dollar contract, making him the highest paid relief pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball.

 

So now, Papelbon brings his record deal to the National League as the latest closer the Phillies have acquired since moving into Citizens Bank Park. First, there was the outspoken Billy Wagner, followed by the remarkably consistent then remarkably inconsistent Lidge. If nothing else, Papelbon differs from his predecessors with his on-field demeanor where his stare seems as if it could pierce through the catcher’s chest protector and his postgame celebration consists of a fist pump that could break a cinder block. In other words, he’s highly wired.

 

There were some reports that maybe the Phillies had originally cemented an offer with Madson, who thanks to injuries became the default closer last season, but Phillies GM Ruben Amaro is clear that Papelbon was their top target. “We liked Papelbon because we felt that he was the best closer on the market,” says Amaro. “His track record was as good as anyone’s who was available.” That was key to the team’s architect, but his next comment proves even more telling: “He has had the great fortune of making the last pitch and winning the World Series.”

 

For a team looking to capture its second title in the last five years, that is all that matters. Amaro wants to win and he wants proven winners on his team. It’s the reason why pitchers like Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and now Papelbon come to the Phillies.

 

On a late February day in Clearwater, Florida, Papelbon is already hard at work with his new teammates, trading in his signature thousand-yard stare for smiles and handshakes. It’s a different team in a different league, but most importantly for the 31-year-old, it’s a chance to leave that night in Baltimore behind for good.

 

Following that loss, the Red Sox fired their manager and their GM resigned. The tide was turning in Boston and Papelbon thought a change of scenery might be best for him as well. After missing the postseason for two straight years, Papelbon wanted to land with a winning team and contribute, but the Phillies offered more than just a quality lineup and stud starting pitching.

 

“The main reason I signed [with the Phillies] is the group of guys,” Papelbon says of the vibe in the clubhouse. Having competed against them in interleague play in recent years, he was impressed by the character and competitiveness of the team. Of course, having names like Howard, Utley and Pence didn’t hurt either. “I’d rather have [our] lineup than any other in the National League. You don’t want to face [them], they’re all great hitters.”

 

To celebrate his new deal, Papelbon did what he does every winter to unwind from the stress of a 162-game season; he went duck hunting back home in Mississippi. “I like to take some time away; once duck season ends, spring training begins,” he says as if life only revolves around the two.

 

So far, getting acclimated to life in Phillie pinstripes has been a welcomed change. “I haven’t been this excited since my rookie year,” he offers. “A new team, a new opportunity, a new chapter in my life.”

 

With that comes a new set of fans too. Boston fans’ love affair with baseball is well documented and thanks to the Phillies string of winning seasons of late, there are definite similarities to be drawn between cities. Not many things seem to worry Papelbon, and being able to deal with the sometimes critical Phillie fans proves no different. In fact, he may have already won them over thanks to a recent comment on 94 WIP when he stated that Philadelphia fans are more knowledgeable about the game.

 

“[The fans] are obviously passionate about the game as we the players are. They enjoy and respect the game and bring a lot of intensity. You want to feed off that energy and play in front of that type of crowd,” Papelbon says.

 

Feeding off energy and thriving off pressure are what makes Papelbon tick. He’s wound like a football player, which should come as no surprise since coming out of high school he was also recruited to play that sport.  Some people fold under the bright stadium lights, others thrive. Papelbon by his own admission, and his results on the field, definitely thrives. “It elevates my game,” he says. “When you put somebody like myself in when the game is on the line, that’s when I perform my best.”

 

Phillies radio broadcaster and former relief pitcher Larry Andersen appreciates that mentality and is already a huge fan of No. 58. “What I like most about Papelbon is that he’s a stand-up guy. There’s no excuses if he doesn’t get the job done. He accepts responsibility for his part, and that seems to be lacking more and more these days. To add to that, he’s got a very short memory and doesn’t appear to take his previous game back out on the mound with him, whether it’s his usual great job or the rare case in which he didn’t get the job done,” says Andersen.

 

Possessing that short-term memory is crucial for a closing pitcher and it’s something Papelbon learned his rookie year after talking to rival Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees, the game’s all-time saves leader, at the All Star Game. He also picked the brain of Boston’s bullpen coach, Gary Tuck, who spent years working with Rivera while a coach with the Yankees.

 

Now on a team with a mix of youth and veterans in the bullpen, Papelbon could be looked upon to impart some of that learned wisdom onto others. Hesitant to call himself the captain in the bullpen, he is more comfortable leading by example, offering insight only when necessary. “I go about my business to prepare myself every night and I try not to worry about everyone else,” he says. “I just go to the park and listen to my body and what it needs… what I need mentally, if I need a quiet day… But, I love to talk baseball… you can learn something new from everyone.”

 

With such a quality rotation thanks to the likes of Halladay, Hamels and Lee, Papelbon figures to have lots of time to get to know his teammates. Having starting pitchers known to last deep into games could mean less overall opportunities than Papelbon is accustomed to. “That goes hand in hand with the job as closer,” he says of the tradeoff.

 

Andersen doesn’t see the rotation hindering Papelbon’s effectiveness either. “Having one of the best closers in the game is certainly a vital part of any bullpen and maybe the most important in that you know he’s always ready to take the ball each and every day,” says Andersen. “Sure, the horses are going to complete more games than most other staffs, but you need that closer that is going to nail down those other games that aren’t completed. And nobody appreciates a closer getting the job done on a regular basis than those horses that started the game.”

 

For the record, Papelbon is far from the intimidating figure he appears to be on the mound. A married father of two, he is known for keeping things loose. Many will remember his infamous dance on the field in a T-shirt and underwear during the Red Sox championship season in 2007. In Boston, local band The Dropkick Murphys served as his soundtrack each time he took the field and the two became synonymous. Oddly, his new theme music has been quite the topic for speculation, but Papelbon remains tight lipped, leaving fans to wait for his first home appearance. Given his musical tastes and persona, one would figure on it being an up-tempo tune. “I like classic rock, heavy rock... a little bit of country,” he says. “I always say that if it sounds good and I can understand the words, I’ll listen.”

 

Papelbon also spent a lot of time during his tenure in Boston aligning himself with different organizations as a means to give back to the community. Though he hasn’t figured out exactly how he’ll carry that over now that he’s in the Philadelphia area, he definitely plans to become a face of the franchise in that regard.

 

First things first, as he gets settled with a new team, his wife Ashley, daughter Parker and son Gunner are also settling in as they decide where they might call home. Being a professional athlete can be taxing enough on a family without adding in new surroundings. “Every player that plays as many games as we do, if you have kids, it’s hard to find the time, but you try the best you can do,” Papelbon says of the extended time away from home.

 

Given the Phillies projected success this year, the season could last even longer. Having not participated in the playoffs in two years, Papelbon relishes the chance to get back but refuses to look too far ahead with the grind of the season in front of him still. It’s all part of his day-by-day approach.

 

Not that his competitive side doesn’t already have a certain series in May against his former squad circled on the calendar. “I’m more concerned with [the season], but I know when we are going to play those guys,” he says, citing the many friendships he still has on the team, before cautioning that those relationships doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t love to stick it to Boston.

 

“That’s what’s fun about baseball,” he says.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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