Papelbon on a roll thanks to slider
Third pitch an ideal complement to fastball and splitter
BOSTON -- Though this year's numbers (0.95 ERA, 11-for-11 in save opportunities) are strikingly similar to the standard Jonathan Papelbon has set during his time as Boston's closer, the process has been a little different.
For starters, the glittering numbers have been more of a grind for Papelbon this time around, as he's been refining his mechanics and incorporating a third pitch -- the slider -- to go along with his already lethal fastball and splitter.
Don't look now, but everything is starting to click for Papelbon, who hasn't been scored upon in his past nine outings.
"I'm pleased with the way I've been approaching my outings," said Papelbon. "I think that I'm steadily working on getting better every time out there and steadily working on my adjustments to stay ahead of the game, and that's all you can do."
Believe it or not, Papelbon turned in 10 outings in a row from April 24 to May 16 without throwing a 1-2-3 frame. He turned that around his last two times out, throwing two flawless innings in the sweep of the Blue Jays.
"I'm just trying to keep my delivery intact and stay strong and focus on what my job is at hand," said Papelbon. "Adding a slider can keep the hitters off-balance and keep them from sitting on any particular pitch. But for me, being able to go out there and constantly repeat a delivery and constantly repeat my mechanics is the No. 1 thing for me. If I can do that, that means my slider is going to be there, and I won't have to worry about it."
Papelbon is quite pleased with the way the slider is coming along.
"It's opened up my game," he said. "It's opened up my ability to be able to throw on both sides of the plate with it and be able to control it. It makes my fastball that much better. It's opened up a lot of game, and hopefully, I can keep making strides toward that and keep separating myself from those hitters and stay ahead of the game."
Manager Terry Francona has seen a drastic improvement in Papelbon's third pitch.
"There were times when he first started throwing it back a while ago when I said, 'Pap, if you're going to lose, don't lose with that.' It was a work in progress," said Francona. "It's actually a pretty good pitch right now. It's not just a strike pitch. He's got some depth to it. He's worked hard. It's given him a different look. And there are nights when maybe he doesn't have the split that he's in and out of the zone, or if it's bouncing, he has another pitch to go to, and it's been very beneficial."
Since Papelbon became the closer in 2006, Francona has had the luxury of knowing that a late-inning lead is just about always safe.
"I think he's been terrific [this season]," Francona said. "Early on, he had a few more walks, and probably a few more foul balls than we were used to. Other than that, I think his ERA is sub-one. He's great. He's set the bar probably unfairly high. I hope he reaches it. It's not easy. He's been unbelievably good, and he's repeated it for a few years now, which is also not easy."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.