By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com Red Sox Insider Follow @sean_mcadam
MINNEAPOLIS -- It seems almost impossible now, but only a few months ago, there was legitimate concern about Jonathan Papelbon.
The Red Sox' closer was coming off a season in which he blew a career-high eight saves and posted the highest ERA since reaching the major leagues.
Last season, every indicator available was trending the wrong way -- walks and hits were up; the number of saves was down. And after a strong start to the Grapefruit League season, Papelbon's mechanics seemed to be a mess, forcing him to pitch in minor-league games to streamline his delivery.
But with just under a third of the season remaining, those fears now seem laughable.
Tuesday night, Papelbon posted his 26th save of the season, and his 21st save in a row, a new career-best streak. A closer look reveals his strikeout-to-walk ratio to be an otherworldly 8-to-1.
For the first time since 2008, his WHIP is below 1.00 at 0.98.
And as he demonstrated Tuesday night when he got three outs on just seven pitches to secure the Red Sox' 4-3 win over the Minnesota Twins, he seems to be peaking just as the Red Sox' season heads down the stretch.
"I feel like I'm hitting my stride,'' said Papelbon. "After last year, I had to make my adjustment this year. I think experience on all levels has made this a better season -- knowing when tohit the gas, when to hit the brake.''
Papelbon credits a new off-field regimen, developed with strength-and-conditioning coach Dave Page, for maintaining his stamina.
And on the mound, there are differences, too. Papelbon has locked into his delivery and has been able to repeat it consistently.
There was no better evidence of that than Tuesday, when pitching for the third straight night, Papelbon seemed to hit 95 mph almost effortlessly.
"I felt strong,'' said Papelbon after turning back the Twins. "The ball was coming out of my hand good. I'm just trying to repeat my daily routine, my delivery, on a daily basis.
"I know I'm 30 years old right now, but I feel stronger than I ever have in seven seasons of big-league baseball.''
That is surely good news for the Red Sox, who hope that Papelbon can be the kind of dominant late-inning force of nature that he was in 2007, when the Sox last won the World Series.
"He's pumping strikes and using all of his pitches,'' said Terry Francona. "He's taken care of himself and he's throwing the ball better now than he was earlier in the season. That's a great sign.''
And while Papelbon seemed to alternate last year between throwing his fastball too frequently and relying on his secondary pitches, this season, his approach has been remarkably simple.
He's challenging hitters with his fastball -- and succeeding much of the time, as his 11.8 strikeouts-per-nine-inning ratio suggests.
"I'm pitching aggressive this year, for sure,'' said Papelbon. "But I also think that when I fall behind and it's 2-and-0, a hitter's count, I can still throw my fastball and get outs with it. That's a huge part of pitching.''
Moreover, because Papelbon's mechanics are purer and streamlined, the late action on his fastball is better.
Still uncertain, of course, is Papelbon's future. He's eligible for free agency after this season and his goal of setting the salary standard for closers is drawing closer.
If Papelbon is seeking a multi-year commitment of four years, he may well be pitching his final few months with the Red Sox, who are known to be wary of giving long-term deals to closers with plenty of high-stress innings.
If, on the other hand, Papelbon can be satisfied with a shorter deal, something still can be worked out.
Either way, that's for December.
For now, the focus is on the present and October. If the Red Sox could push a fast forward button and have Papelbon throw in the post-season the way he's throwing currently, they surely would.