Finally, I can exhale a little bit.
I love all my Red Sox, but like any fan, some are more equal than others to me. Probably the player I'm most binkyish about would be Jonathan Papelbon (not a news flash for anyone who's been reading this blog longer than 10 minutes). And for most of this season, watching him has bothered me almost as much as watching Big Papi.
Papelbon's mechanics have not looked right and his pitches have not looked the same. He's gotten the job done, for the most part, but since Spring Training, his velocity had been down and that hopping, zipping movement has been missing from his fastball. Having heard him talk before about working on being "Less like a merry-go-round and more like a Ferris wheel" with his motion, I noticed him becoming steadily more merry-go-round this year, often falling off dramatically at the end of his delivery and missing his spots. In short, his command and control have been what Curt Schilling once famously described as "horseshit."
He then gave some alarming quotes indeed about how he was tinkering with his delivery. I was, to quote a SoSHer, in the "concerned category." JoS quantified what I'd been sensing all along - the rate at which hitters were swinging and missing at Papelbon's pitches has been in decline this season. We especially saw this in the Angels series a couple weeks back, when Howie Kendrick fouled off eleventy balls before Paps could finally finish him off. That wasn't the only time this year that happened, either.
It's hard for me to tell whether Papelbon is growing more comfortable now in his adjusted mechanics or if he has abandoned them and gone back to the old way, but last night he was more effective. He came on in the eighth inning in relief of Ramon Ramirez, who had just surrendered his first homer of the season to Mark Teixeira, the sought-after first baseman's second "ba-boomba" of the game, to use last night's Eckersleyism. Paps' first batter was the formidable Hideki Matsui, who I swear is always up in these situations. I knew things were looking promising when Matsui struck out swinging.
Miguel Cabrera followed with a sharp single to right, setting my brows back to "furrowed". Then Jose Molina popped out to end the threat with runners at first and third. Results inconclusive.
The next inning would solidify the assessment - by now also being made by the pitching conossieur Eckersley - that the ball was moving much better for Papelbon. But not at first. Paps set my alarm bells jangling again by giving up an infield single and then plunking Derek Jeter to put two on right away in the bottom of the ninth.
It was Teixeira's at bat in the next few minutes, following a flyout for Johnny Damon, that changed the complexion of Paps' night for me. Suddenly the "extra few feet" on his fastball had returned. He was locating at 95 mph. And Teixeira, looking for another gopher ball, swung and missed three times.
It was a beautiful AB, at least as far as Boston was concerned. Even better was the commentary from Eckersley, who used the word "cheese" about 10 times in five minutes, as in "low cheese," and "high cheese," at times substituting "high hair." DAVE ROBERTS! chimed in after a devastating knee-high heater to Teixeira with "Hot! Hot!" Eckersley joined him, and for a moment both former players were just giggling and hissing, "Hot! Hot!" together.
Like I said last night, if we can't have the Rem-Dawg, this is the next best thing.
The next batter representing the winning run, Nick Swisher, stopped my heart for a few seconds with a towering, rocketing fly ball to right that thankfully fell foul. Then he walked. If I ever have to have Botox on my forehead later in life, I'm sending the Red Sox the bill.
It all came down to brass tacks with Robinson Cano at the plate, bases loaded, two outs. I was standing in my living room, hands in prayer position in front of my face, hyperventilating. It was one o'clock in the morning. Cano, too, would strike out swinging, and Papelbon would fall off the mound toward Varitek immediately afterward, fist-pumping with a vigor we haven't seen yet this season.
It was still shakier than I'd like; not a dominating performance. But it was definitely much more like the Paps I know and love.