The Red Sox hurler knew his old college teammate, Allen Buckley, was definitely going to be on that Brandon (Miss.) High baseball field that day in early February. Papelbon's throwing partner (a member of the Angels organization) is always dependable.
What wasn't, however, was the last 10 feet of his fastball, the source of his anxiety.
"I've always just had it," said Papelbon of the unique life that appears at the tail end of his four-seam heater. "But I was a little worried that it wasn't going to be there when I started throwing again this offseason. But that first time I threw at about 80 percent (with Buckley), I knew it was there."
There was no better showcase for the trademark final few feet on Papelbon's fastball than in Sunday night's game in Texas. All anyone had to see was the helpless cuts the Rangers' Michael Young - one of the game's best fastball hitters - took when trying to catch up to the Boston closer's 94 mph heat.
"He has always had that, ever since college," said Buckley, a pitcher who also attended Mississippi State. "He is throwing the ball 94 or 95 by guys when you have other guys throwing 98 and hitters are right on them. He has the extra something 99 percent of the other guys don't have."
Whether the little bit of giddy-up on Papelbon's four-seamer is classified as "life" or "jump" or even "acceleration," it isn't in most pitchers' arsenals.
Is it an optical illusion or is there something that makes Papelbon's 94 mph look like 104 mph? According to Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, it's a little bit of both.
"There are a few things at work here," Farrell explained. "First, it's God-given. The second gear, as it is referred to, to me that's something you really can't teach. But in addition to that, Jon's delivery creates some additional deception that adds to hitters' reaction time being less. You factor in the velocity and you factor in the life, and regardless of hitters being in the big leagues, he has the ability to throw a fastball by you."
Papelbon's arm strength and ability were fully intact this spring, thanks in part to throwing sessions with Buckley. He did, though, have to make some adjustments in Fort Myers to get to the point he was at on the big stage in Arlington.