Papelbon's gone and the void still remains

Papelbon's gone and the void still remains
May 29, 2013, 12:00 pm
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(USA Today Sports Images)

As a baseball fan, there are few things more inspiring than a dominant closer. Short of an outfielder karate-kicking an unsuspecting catcher in the chest, next to nothing matches the excitement and anticipation of hearing that theme music (most likely a mid-80s or early-90s rock anthem), watching a pitcher emerge from the bullpen and just knowing that he’s about to take care of business.
 
With one of those guys, the ninth inning isn’t just the ninth inning. It’s an event. A performance. A game within a game.
 
And at his height, Jonathan Papelbon played that game better than anyone in Red Sox history. He’s not only the most prolific closer to ever wear the uniform (his 219 saves rank first by nearly 90 over the next guy), but no one has come close to matching Papelbon’s charisma. All season long. For many seasons in a row. With No. 58, closer wasn’t only a position but an identity; one that basically defined Boston’s run to the 2007 title.
 
The song. The sprint out of the bullpen that stopped short of the dirt. The moment of reflection, the slow walk to the mound. The exaggerated stretch and the death stare.
 
Last night, Papelbon took the hill at Fenway for the first time since splitting town (the Sox let him split town, really), and did so in familiar fashion. He mowed down the side — which included Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz — in order, on 16 pitches, to earn his 10th save and preserve Philly’s 3-1 win. On the year, he now has a 0.92 ERA, 0.610 WHIP and has only walked two batters in 19.2 innings. This, coming off a debut season in Philadelphia where he notched 38 saves and finished a career-high and league-leading 64 games.
 
Meanwhile in the season-plus since Papelbon’s departure, the role of Red Sox closer has been a clown car of injury and incompetence. Bobby Jenks, Mark Melancon, Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan. The closest thing the Sox have found to a consistent ninth inning presence is a guy who once spent an entire inning making pickoff throws to second base.
 
And as a result, for as long Papelbon finds success in Philly, and as long as the Sox ninth inning resembles a urinal cake, there will be questions about the decision to let Papelbon go. It’s human nature to look at this situation, and second-guess the team’s refusal to break the bank.
 
But more important than the second-guessing is reality.
 
The Sox didn’t sign Papelbon. And you know what? They had plenty of valid reasons and just about everyone’s support. This was right after the September collapse and Francona’s dismissal; not the time to invest that kind of cash in an aging closer. On paper, it was a logical move, even if it obviously hasn’t worked out.
 
So as far as the Sox are concerned, Papelbon isn’t the issue. His success only magnifies the real issue, which is: How the hell do they replace him?
 
In many ways, in terms of the role they play on a team, closers are very similar to NFL place kickers. And on that level, even though their personalities couldn’t be any different, there’s definitely a comparison to be made between Papelbon and Adam Vinatieri. Just how they left and the void that needed to be filled.
 
Like Papelbon, Vinatieri went off to another team after being lowballed by the Pats and was as solid as ever. He won another ring. But guess what? It wasn’t that big of a deal, and that’s because Bill Belichick followed through. He made the difficult but sensible decision to let Vinatieri walk away, but then he drafted Stephen Gostkowski. He replaced one of the best kickers in the league with one of the best kickers in the league, and never missed a beat.
 
That’s what the Sox need. Not their old closer, but a new one. They need to find Stephen Gostkowski.
 
I know, easier said than done. And God knows that Ben Cherington has tried. He gave up Jed Lowrie for Melancon, and then Melancon as part of a package for Hanrahan. He gave up Josh Reddick and Brandon Moss for Andrew Bailey.
 
But at this point, he’s failed. Even if it might be too early to consider Bailey a legitimate bust, you’re crazy to think that he’s durable enough to ever truly own the job in Boston. And as we look ahead at this rebuilding process, and what it might take for the Sox to one day get back to the level of dominance they experienced at the height of Papelbon’s reign, finding that closer is on top of Cherington’s list of priorities. At least it should be.
 
In the meantime, at least for one night, Jonathan Papelbon brought that familiar feeling back to Fenway. He reminded Boston what’s it like to watch a guy charge out of that bullpen, captivate the crowd, embrace the spotlight and basically have the game won before he even takes the mound.
 
The next step is finding (another) one of those guys for the home team.

Now that I think of it, didn’t Stephen Gostkowski pitch in college?