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.
The initial tweak came with Papelbon adjusting his set-up, which has always been a closed stance (front foot placed to the right of his back). But once in Fort Myers, it was even more closed than usual, causing Papelbon to throw in more of a side-to-side delivery.
Once the footwork was dealt with, the Red Sox pitcher then concentrated on his lead arm. His left elbow was flying out to the side during his delivery instead of plunging down along the side of his body. That correction was a key for Papelbon to fully regain the powerful final few feet that had usually accompanied his fastball.
And through it all, Papelbon had the advantage of a delivery that immediately puts hitters at a disadvantage. When he releases the pitch, it is directly out in front of his body, which (especially with a white uniform) often makes the hitters lose the ball for a valuable split second.
As for the mechanics, it was an ongoing process throughout the spring. There were moments of revelation, such as the four strikeouts against the Phillies in his first Grapefruit League game. But through the games of catch in Mississippi, alterations on Field 5 at the minor league complex and bumps in the road during the preseason games, it wasn't until close to the beginning of the regular season that Papelbon's old friend had been found.
"It was there for a hitter or two at times in the spring, but a tell-tale sign was that when he threw his split it would stay on the same plane and fade rather than having that hard, biting action," Farrell said. "Had he not done that naturally prior to spring training, it wouldn't have really given us a reason to try and find it. Once he started to get behind the ball more, there was more life on the ball.
"There are just a few guys who have that late explosiveness where hitters track the ball to where they expect it is going to be. While I wouldn't say the ball physically rises, it stays on the same plane and rides through the zone."
As his throwing partner, Buckley, said, "Everything he throws has life on it."
A few Rangers hitters can attest to that.