McAdam: Papelbon's a relief for Red Sox

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McAdam: Papelbon's a relief for Red Sox

By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com

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.

Consider:

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.

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam

Dombrowski defends John Farrell after group strategy meeting on Monday

Dombrowski defends John Farrell after group strategy meeting on Monday

 

The Red Sox braintrust had a meeting on Monday's off-day to strategize with a 22-21 team that's underperforming and in third place.

President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told NESN's Tom Caron on the Sox pre-game show that he was part of a meeting with Farrell, assistant general managers Eddie Romero and Brian O'Halloran and vice president of baseball research and development Zack Scott.

"We sat down yesterday for over a couple hours," Dombrowski told Caron. "I [had] already talked to some of our scouts and just kind of [went] over our club to try to get it to fit together a little bit. Because some of those things, the injuries, and even the guys that are playing, like in Hanley [Ramirez's] case, it does affect what you’re trying to do. So normally at this time of year, I think you have a better pulse [of the team]. But I think we need a little bit more time. We just really haven’t flowed as a club. We haven’t played as well as I think we’re capable of and I think we need to give ourselves that opportunity."

Asked about Farrell's job security, Dombrowski defended a manager whose 2018 option was picked up over the winter.

"Well, we won a divisional crown last year," Dombrowski said. "He managed very well for us at the time. I think that John, as well as everybody else, is frustrated by our performance and that we haven’t taken off, but we’re not buried either. I mean, we’re four games out of first place and we really haven’t been in a flow. And when you look at it, it’s like, OK, last week Thursday we won two great games in St. Louis. I wasn’t with the team, I was in Salem. 

"Well I looked at the match-up on Thursday, and I’m thinking, well if [Sonny] Gray throws like he’s capable, I’m not sure what we’re going to get out of [Hector] Velazquez at that particular time. And of course, Velazquez didn’t have a very good outing. So you lose that ball game. Is that John’s fault? I can’t put that on John. 

"Friday night, you have Chris Sale, he threw the ball very well. Well the play that Trevor Plouffe made on Hanley Ramirez, I don’t know if he’s made a play like that all year long. Mookie Betts, in the ninth inning gets a line drive right at the third baseman. Well you have a chance to score five or six runs, didn’t happen. No excuses, but it’s one of those where I think to pin those things on John Farrell are just not fair. I think we’re in a position where he’s managed well, he’s managed divisional champions. I think we’re in a position, we have a good club. We just need to get in a better flow of things."

Dombrowski felt the Sox were harder to evaluate a quarter into the season than most teams would be.

"Because the reality is when you look at our ballclub, it really hasn’t been together at all at any point during the year for me," he said. "So I think when you look at it, you say OK, well, we need to improve our fourth and fifth starters. Well, David Price comes back next week — we think he’ll be back next week. So that’s a pretty big addition, that’s like making a major trade. 

"I still think Drew Pomeranz, although he has scuffled at times, should be a fourth-, fifth-type starter on a good club. … We need to straighten him out. I think he’s capable of doing that. When you talk about bullpen, our bullpen’s been good but I still think we’re going to get Carson Smith in a short time period, so that’s another addition that we have.

"Third base, you know has been a hole for us where Pablo Sandoval could be back very soon. I’m not sure where Brock Holt fits into that whole equation. So we’re really on our fifth third baseman right now when you look at it. Pablo is there, and then Brock Holt was there. Marco Hernandez is going to have surgery, we’re going to miss him for the rest of the year. Josh Rutledge has been over there."

Holt, out with vertigo, and the Red Sox are regrouping. Holt's exhausted the 20 days permitted for a minor league rehab stint, and is heading to Pittsburgh to meet concussion expert Micky Collins. Another rehab stint figures to follow eventually, barring a change in diagnosis.

Hernandez is to have surgery on his left shoulder Friday, which likely ends his season.

Hanley Ramirez can still be the DH, but his sore shoulders have relegated him to only that position, not first base. That's part of the reason Sam Travis was added to the roster Tuesday.

"There’s a couple reasons behind it," Dombrowski said of Travis' call-up.  "We’re in a position where we have a roster spot for a positional player. Secondly, we’ve talked about giving Mitch [Moreland] a little bit of a blow on his feet at times, to not play too many games. And we faced a left hand pitcher tomorrow [in the Rangers' Martin Perez]. He’s been hitting the ball well, Sam has. 

"We’re trying to sit [Moreland] a little bit vs. the left-handed pitching. Even though he’s done OK, we just don’t want him to get too tired as the year goes on. And the reality is, originally that was going to be Hanley [playing first base vs. lefties]. Well, Hanley’s not available to do that now, so we needed to make an adjustment ourself on how to do that. And with the extra roster spot, Pawtucket right down the road, we figure it’s a good chance to give him that opportunity. 

"In Hanley’s case, not playing first base, people don’t realize at times how much that changes the mix of your club. Because at some time, we are going to have Chris Young get at-bats and DH at that point."

Napoli: Red Sox and his agent only had 'small talk' about reunion

Napoli: Red Sox and his agent only had 'small talk' about reunion

BOSTON -- Of course, the Rangers' Mike Napoli didn't mind the idea of replacing David Ortiz. He loved playing in Boston.

There just was never much chatter that way last offseason, when Napoli was a free agent after his Indians took the Cubs to seven games in the World Series.

"I think my agent had maybe a small talk or something [with the Red Sox], but I don't think it ever would have happened," Napoli said Tuesday afternoon as he returned to Fenway Park with Texas. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I would have loved to come back. But, I mean, it all worked out. I'm glad to be where I'm at now. Because I knew everybody here [with the Rangers]. I didn't have to start over again."

Napoli played with the Rangers in 2011 and '12, and was traded by the Sox to Texas for the last few months of the 2015 season.

He was hopeful the Sox -- his team from 2013 to midseason 2015 -- would be among the clubs to come calling last winter.

"Oh, yeah," he said.

But he wasn't optimistic it was going to happen. And it didn't.

"To be honest with you . . . Cleveland was my first priority," he said. "I just had a World Series run [with the Indians] and we didn't win it. And then Texas was there [in the bidding, along with] Minnesota."

The Rangers wound up giving Napoli, 35, a one-year deal for 8.5 million with an $11 million club option for next season or a $2.5 million buyout. He's hitting just .188 entering Tuesday, a subpar figure, but has 10 home runs.

"We started off pretty slow, but winning 10 straight will help," Napoli said of the Rangers' recent tear. "[Winning] 11 of 12, we've been playing better. I think we kind of lost track of who we are. We got some guys struggling, still trying to find themselves and kind of got away from doing it together as a team, but we got back to doing that. It's been going pretty well."

Part of the World Series championship team of four years ago, Napoli loved being in Boston in 2013, and he enjoys being back now.

"What we were able to do in 2013, obviously, it's something I'l never forget and something I cherish," Napoli said. "I love coming back here to play."

When it was noted there's been so much turmoil since Napoli left -- the talk of Tuesday was manager John Farrell's job security -- he was unsurprised.

"You got to have thick skin to play here," Napoli said. "You're expected to win a championship every single year. But that's what I loved about playing here, is that people were on you. For me, I loved it. A lot of people probably couldn't do it.

"I knew it in my heart that I went out there and I played as hard as I possibly could every single time . . . I know you're not going to be perfect and live up to everyone."