By Daniel Barbarisi
BOSTON — The question took Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon off guard. Did he think he should be part of the Cy Young conversation?
"I don't know man, how many times has a closer won the Cy Young, once?" Told it had happened at least seven times, he raised his eyebrows. "Seven times? I think for me, it's just going out there and doing what I'm trying to do. If it happens, it happens. Who knows, man, we've still got a lot of baseball to determine that. Who knows?"
The idea of Papelbon contending for the Cy Young this year would shock many attentive Red Sox fans as well.
His core numbers are excellent: a 1.89 ERA and 36 saves. But anyone who has watched him - or looked up how many hits and walks he was allowing - could tell that for much of the year, this wasn't the same pitcher who shortened games for Boston from 2006 to 2008. Papelbon allowed nearly 1.5 baserunners per inning before the All-Star break, and many of his successful saves were roller-coaster rides of walks, hits, and then finally strikeouts.
That has changed over the past month. Papelbon is now pitching efficiently and effectively, backing up his excellent core numbers with shutdown, worry-free performances, like Sunday's three-strikeout scoreless inning. Since the end of July, he has improved to the point where talking about whether he should be in the Cy Young mix isn't that crazy after all.
Early in the year, Papelbon was allowing too much hard contact, and walking batters at an unprecedented rate. By August 24, Papelbon had walked 24 batters, nine more than he had in any other full season.
But even after putting two or three men on base, he would somehow manage to get the key strikeout to end the jam nearly every time.
Papelbon knew that he couldn't keep that up forever. Through continuous evaluation and tinkering, he figured out which pitches were fooling batters, and more importantly, which ones weren't: which balls they left alone, helping to lead to the jump in walks.
"I think finally, for me, I'm able to decipher what's going to work and what's not at this point in time," Papelbon said.
It's paying off.
Since July 30, Papelbon has allowed only three runs over 19 innings. Perhaps more importantly, he gave up 13 hits and four walks over that time - allowing less than a baserunner per inning.
In his eight outings since August 24, Papelbon hasn't walked a single batter. It's his longest stretch without a walk this season.
Papelbon altered his delivery during spring training to take some of the strain off his shoulder, and he has had trouble staying consistent with the delivery at points this season. Now, Papelbon is repeating the same motions with comfort, and he's starting to make it work.
"For me, it's coming down to that part of the season, where it's going to be key for me to go out there day in and day out and repeat my delivery," he said.
The tweaked delivery may have had a hand in his excellent strikeout numbers this season. Even when he was allowing baserunners, Papelbon has been able to get a strikeout seemingly whenever he needed it. He has 71 punch outs in 62 innings, and he said his adjustments may have actually improved the deception in his delivery slightly.
"My delivery's been a lot better now, so I think a little bit of deception has been allowing me to get a little more swings and misses," Papelbon said.
And he may be coming to the point where he can again throw his all-important split-fingered fastball and expect the same devastating results that were once routine. Papelbon's splitter abandoned him much of the first half, but Papelbon may have thrown his best one of the season in Sunday's first game, striking out Gregg Zaun.
"Yeah, I've been throwing that pitch better. In my last outing I didn't throw it as well as I could have, but today I had a good one, and for me, that's obviously going to be a key pitch for me going down the stretch," Papelbon said.
If Papelbon can keep it up down that stretch run, it could go a long way towards ensuring that he gets a shot at the only reward that really matters right now: a chance to pitch well into the postseason. (Contact Daniel Barbarisi at dbarbari(at)projo.com.) (Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)