By Sean McAdam
BOSTON -- The Red Sox had scored the only run of the game in the bottom of the eighth inning, but very quickly, that lead seemed in jeopardy Wednesday night.
Former Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez had begun the top of the night by lashing a double into the right-field corner, giving the Detroit Tigers the potential tying run in scoring position with no out.
Three batters later, the threat seemed insignifcant. Jonathan Papelbon retired Jhonny Peralta on a groundout to the right side of the infield, and then overpowered both Alex Avila and Ryan Raburn with high-octane fastballs up in the strike zone, daring them to make contact.
This was classic power pitching, with no margin for error and the the pitcher reveling in his ability to dominate.
"After giving up the double to Victor," recounted Papelbon, "I was able to switch gears and put a little more intensity behind my pitches and that's what I was able to do."
On the last swinging strike, Papelbon, with perhaps more exuberance than normal for a May game, pumped his first and twisted his face into a mixture of celebration and defiance.
This was Papelbon's eighth save in nine tries, one more bit of evidence that, despite the questions that hung over him at the end of last season and again this spring, he had returned to a level of dominance.
Papelbon has a WHIP of 0.962.
Opposing hitters are batting just .230 against him. Of the 15 hits against him, just four are extra-base hits . . . with no homers.
He has struck out 23 hitters in 17 23 innings for a strikeout-per-nine-innings average of 11.7, the best for Papelbon since 2007 when he averaged 13 strikeouts per nine innings.
He has walked just two hitters all season for an astounding 11.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the best of his career.
"He looks really focused," said Terry Francona of his closer, "and his stuff is really good. And what's nice is that it's been consistently good. I know Victor got the double, but other than that, he really executed pitches."
Among all the consternation surrounding the Red Sox' 2-10 start, the recent spate of injuries to the starting rotation and the ongoing struggles with situational hitting, it's easy to forgot that, in spring training, Papelbon was one of the team's biggest question marks.
Last year, he posted the highest ERA of his career (3.90) and set a career-high for blown saves, too. Worse, he appeared out of synch in spring training, fighting his delivery and yanking pitches every which way.
On some mornings, sent to get work at the team's Minor League Developement complex, Papelbon was alarmingly wild against minor-league hitters.
But Papelbon said Wednesday night that he suddenly found his mechanics in Houston, during the Red Sox' final exhibition game of the spring, and has been locked into his delivery ever since.
"He's been lights out," marveled catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia. "He worked a lot in spring training on his mechanics, staying behind the ball so the ball's just flying out his hand right now. He's controlling it where he wants to put it. He's fun to watch and definitely fun to catch."
Saltalamacchia said the quality of Papelbon's stuff "is definitely a lot different," compared to last year.
"He's getting great backspin," said the catcher. "He's not a movement guy. He's a four-seam guy with a split-finger fastball and a slider. But I think for him, when it comes out of his hand, it picks up that second gear.
"He's throwing 97 mph. It's hard enough to hit that as it is, but when it picks up that second gear, it's a pitch that looks so good at your waist. But then you swing and you miss. And he hides the ball."
At times a year ago, Papelbon had difficulty finishing hitters off. At-bats would become interminable, with foul ball following another. Papelbon's pitch count would rise, and as the batter extended the at-bat, so would Papelbon's frustration level.
Not this year.
"My fastball has life at the plate," said Papelbon.
And a position where the Red Sox harbored some quiet concern has once again become a source of strength.