Bullpen pits all-for-one vs. three-for-all
Red Sox have dominant Papelbon and Rays close games by committee
ST. PETERSBURG -- Jonathan Papelbon cleared his throat and raised his left hand, rapidly rapping his knuckles seven times against the wood of his Tropicana Field locker for good luck.
The Red Sox closer had once more been reminded of his growing scoreless streak under the bright lights of postseason play -- 19 2/3 innings and counting, with more duty sure to follow this week.
Even he will welcome some additional fortune for the upcoming battle between the American League's top clubs. But those results have not come by accident.
"The overall environment and the intensity, it really makes me take my game to a new level," Papelbon said. "I think players throughout the game and throughout time, you're known for what you do in the postseason. That's just how it is and how you're revered or remembered."
Coming into this week's best-of-seven ALCS against the Tampa Bay Rays, Papelbon worked two scoreless innings in a Game 3 appearance against the Angels in the AL Division Series, leaving him one out shy of equaling Joe Niekro's all-time postseason consecutive scoreless-innings mark of 20 innings.
The upstart Rays don't boast the luxury of a ninth-inning fixture Terry Francona enjoys with Papelbon, but Tampa Bay's players don't see that as a weakness. In fact, the Rays' bullpen is one of the reasons they've reached this point, shifting to a closer-by-committee during the season.
That up-for-grabs nature bonded the relievers, who now anticipate the call anytime the bullpen phone begins ringing, no matter the score or the situation. Virtually anonymous when the season started, the Rays' bullpen has demanded recognition.
"We're always prepared and looking ahead," said J.P. Howell, who jump-started his career by abandoning the rotation. "Each guy thinks he's the next guy in because we don't have a closer. It keeps everyone on their toes the whole time."
Without injured closer Troy Percival, Dan Wheeler may be the de-facto option, with 13 saves during the regular season and one more in the ALDS, allowing the only run Tampa Bay's bullpen permitted in 11 1/3 innings of duty in the four-game series against the White Sox.
Yet manager Joe Maddon retains the flexibility of going to anyone at any moment. Spin the wheel and it could land on Wheeler, hard-throwing Australian Grant Balfour or even submarine-slinging Chad Bradford, a midseason pickup from Baltimore. No one knows.
Wheeler said the revolving door helped ward off jealousy. The pitchers dine together on the road, fool around in the bullpen and, as long as a win is on the board at the end of the night, remain happy.
"When we're out there, we're pulling for each other as much as anybody," Wheeler said. "We see ourselves as one person out there, a unit or a group. I think that's why we've been so strong. It's never been a one-man show out there."
Some are just happy for the opportunity. After nine years in the Twins' farm system, Balfour included stops with Cincinnati and Milwaukee before missing the Rays' roster out of Spring Training, eventually landing at Triple-A Durham.
Balfour used the snub as fuel, posting a 1.54 ERA and averaging 12.65 strikeouts per nine innings after rejoining Tampa Bay in late May. The progression has taken him to the point where some wonder if Balfour may be a future closer -- particularly after Wheeler blew five of 14 save opportunities after July 31.
Papelbon vs. Rays in 2008
For now, Maddon calls Balfour one of his "middle closers," an interchangeable part capable of locking down a ninth inning but satisfied with whatever duty comes his way. Yet he's got an attitude Papelbon would admire -- when you dig in, expect some heat.
"Hey, look at my numbers, then ask if I need another pitch," Balfour said. "Next year, if my fastball gets hit, I'll throw a slider, I'll throw a curveball. I could care less. Hit me. I'm fired up. Swing and hit me."
Tampa Bay relievers went 7-0 against Boston this season, with five different pitchers earning a save. The Rays' bullpen -- brutal last year (6.16 ERA), better this one (3.55) -- doesn't have much trouble enjoying what it does.
During the ALDS in Chicago, a leather-lunged fan at U.S. Cellular Field was in the midst of giving the visitors grief when Balfour -- indicative of the lighthearted nature of the staff -- unexpectedly decided to have some fun with the ticket holder.
Rays' bullpen vs. Red Sox in 2008
"I pulled a seat out for him and put a Red Bull there with some seeds, and told him to come sit down with us," Balfour said. "He was getting a little fired up. We do whatever it takes on the day to keep it cool and relax."
Not that the Rays -- or most clubs, to be fair -- would attempt the closer-by-committee other than out of necessity. Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell knows firsthand how much simpler life can be with a force such as Papelbon, removing stress from already-frantic October evenings.
"It's certainly a luxury to have a guy of his status and his stature and ability to come in, and not have to rely on a trick type of pitch to get hitters to chase," Farrell said. "We're all very aware of his style. But I think any quality team has got a guy that you can bank on late in games to close it out. We have that."
Even the greats that Papelbon aspires to join were not untouchable, and as dominant as Papelbon has been in the postseason, to Tampa Bay, he is not infallible. In fact, Papelbon blew his last appearance against the Rays on Sept. 9, a note the Rays gleefully wield as evidence.
After Papelbon replaced Hideki Okajima to protect a 4-3 lead at Fenway Park, Dan Johnson led off the ninth inning with a home run and, after an out, Fernando Perez and Dioner Navarro rapped back-to-back doubles to give the Rays a 5-4 advantage. Nearly a month to the date, Papelbon shrugs it off, as any good closer would.
"So much has happened since then," Papelbon said. "This is a new season. This is a whole new thing. Nothing really matters anymore what you do during the season. That's kind of the approach we take. I don't think we want to go home."
And his track record speaks of success: Papelbon was 3-for-4 in save opportunities against Tampa Bay in 2008, locking down games on May 4, June 3 and Sept. 8.
In 24 career appearances vs. Tampa Bay, Papelbon is 1-1 with a 3.20 ERA, recording 13 saves -- history that breeds confidence that he can lock down a few more opportunities in October. Yet, as Kevin Youkilis laughs, if the Red Sox have their way, he'll never have the chance.
"We always have a joke around here that we try to get as many runs so that he doesn't get a save situation. That's what we like to do," Youkilis said. "You don't want to rely on one pitcher. He's going to come in if we're up by eight runs, that's just the way the playoffs are. I'm hoping that he doesn't get any saves, but he pitches every night."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.