Do the Red Sox have a closer controversy?
Only if Keith Foulke comes out to close a game.
An already intriguing 2006 Red Sox season become even more compelling Wednesday night, when the bullpen door opened for the bottom of the ninth and 25-year old Jonathan Papelbon came in to close out a 2-1 win over Texas.
Eleven pitches later, Papelbon had his first big-league save. And – despite what Manager Terry Francona might say — the Sox had a new closer for the short-term.
Keith Foulke, to his credit, took the high road after the game. He never even warmed up in the tight pitchers duel, and claims he didn’t get hot under the collar when the call went to his younger teammate.
“As long as we win, that’s all that really matters,” said Foulke.
Needless to say, Red Sox Nation agrees. Boston is a city that treats 162 regular-season games as though they were Game 7 of the World Series. Each night is a must-win situation; each manager’s decision the fodder for 24 hours of discussion. Remember, this is a town that spent the pre-game hours Wednesday complaining about Josh Bard, the new backup catcher. Francona handles the pressure of Boston as well as any manager in recent memory. He takes the barbs and arrows from the fans and media and protects his players to the end. Defending the men in his clubhouse is one of his strongest traits.
Having said that, Francona didn’t try to hide the fact that he has questions about Foulke right now… and that Papelbon is providing a pretty good answer to that ninth-inning riddle. “I wasn’t comfortable having a game of consequence and having the guy that’s throwing maybe better than anybody in baseball not have some say-so in the game,” Francona told NESN.
Papelbon has made a very strong case for more work. His two innings of perfect baseball in Texas served as a reminder that he is no longer a prospect. He is a present-day stud.
Foulke’s rough ninth inning (with a five-run lead) Monday didn’t do much to further his cause. Everyone hopes the 2004 post-season hero is back to form soon, but right now the Sox need to do what’s best for them in the short term.
“I think Foulkie’s going to be outstanding,” said Francona. “I don’t think he’s at 100 percent right yet. Part of my responsibility is to get him there, but also to win games at the same time.”
It was in Texas last July that Foulke imploded with a game on the line for the final time. Francona wasn’t going to let that happen again last night. Foulke will get other chances to pitch, and may eventually come out of that bullpen in the ninth inning.
Just not yet. Right now, Papelbon seems to be unhittable. He is looking like Huston Street, the young closer who took the job away from Octavio Dotel in Oakland last season. He is a future starter – a future ace – but he’s the live arm in the bullpen right now.
After watching the Sox post the league’s highest bullpen ERA last season, Papelbon is a sight for sore eyes indeed.
Lewiston native Tom Caron covers the Red Sox for NESN.