- Gordon Edes, Red Sox reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- Five American League closers were named All-Stars this season, including Tampa Bay's Rafael Soriano, who was added to the team when the godfather of closers, the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, withdrew for health reasons.
Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, an All-Star selection in each of the previous four seasons, was not. The last time we saw Papelbon on the mound, against the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday night, he was pitching in the seventh inning for only the fifth time in his career, the other four appearances coming in 2005, when he was a rookie.
There was an obvious explanation for why Papelbon was in the game so early. He hadn't pitched in five days, and Red Sox manager Terry Francona wanted to make sure, with Thursday being an off day, that Papelbon got some work. He'd alerted the closer to that possibility earlier in the day, and with the Sox down by four runs, it made sense.
Papelbon, who pitched a scoreless inning, was not only happy to get the work, but greatly pleased with the results.
"My stuff was fresh tonight, nice and fresh,'' he said. "Just the way the ball came out, the kind of power I had, I love, love where I'm at right now.''
He also insisted that as much as he relished being an All-Star in previous seasons, it might work to his advantage that he isn't this go-round.
"I'm going to stay in Boston for those three days,'' he said, "and for me it'll be good to do a little reassessment, sit back and think about what I have to do in the second half of the season. Let's rock and roll, you know? It'll be good for me.''
The six Sox All-Stars will be facing a bit of a logistical nightmare in the next couple of weeks. They have to fly across three time zones, from Toronto to Anaheim, Sunday night, then back across the country to open the second half at home Thursday against Texas. Four days later, it's back on a plane for a three-city, West Coast swing to Oakland, Seattle and Anaheim that will take the club almost to the end of the month.
"It's going to be tough for our All-Stars,'' Papelbon said. "Brutal, man. Good for me, I think, to miss that whirlwind.''
Ordinarily, Papelbon's 19 saves, tied for fourth most in the league, would have warranted All-Star consideration. But his ERA of 3.60 is nearly double last season's 1.85, and his 31 strikeouts rank eighth among closers. His WHIP (walks plus hits per nine innings) of 1.11 ranks just seventh.
Papelbon's high ERA can be blamed on three bad outings -- a four-run, ninth-inning meltdown in the Bronx and back-to-back blown saves in Colorado. Take away that yield of nine runs over three innings in three appearances, and the ERA is a glittering 1.45.
But Papelbon, after averaging double-digit strikeouts per nine innings in the past three seasons, is down to 7.97 per nine innings this season. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 2.58, compared to 9.63 just two seasons ago, and the 1.54 HRs per nine innings he is giving up is the highest of his career.
A drop in velocity, as some observers insist? Not according to the numbers: FanGraphs pegs his average velocity at 94.6 mph, consistent with previous seasons.
"All of us have had bumps in the road, including myself,'' Papelbon said, "but I feel my bumps in the road are gone.
"There shouldn't be bumps for me at all in the second half. And as you know, in the latter part of the season, everybody in the bullpen gets leaned on.''
Outside of Daniel Bard, who has been dominant in the setup role, the entire Sox bullpen has struggled. Its 4.78 ERA is last in the AL. (Cleveland moved ahead to 4.76 Thursday night.) Only Baltimore has more blown saves (13) than the Sox (12), although in fewer chances, and the Sox 'pen has given up the most home runs in the AL (37).
Manny Delcarmen is on the disabled list with a forearm strain. Hideki Okajima has had back issues that could be contributing to his ineffectiveness. Ramon Ramirez doesn't inspire the confidence he did last season. And of all the flotsam and jetsam the Sox brought in this spring, only Scott Atchison has stuck and given the Sox some serviceable innings.
Papelbon is as interested as anyone in what moves GM Theo Epstein intends to make to bolster the bullpen between now and the end of the season. He likes rookie lefty Dustin Richardson -- "I like his stuff and the way he likes to compete" -- and is aware the Sox have moved starter Michael Bowden into the bullpen in Pawtucket.
"But there are few and far rookies that can come up in a pennant race,'' Papelbon said with a grin, "unless their name is Jonathan Papelbon.''
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Although he's not an All-Star, Jonathan Papelbon is pleased with where he is.