Papelbon's six outs have Sox dancing
Closer enters to dangerous situation in eighth inning of Game 7
BOSTON -- Jonathan Papelbon could've been one of those guys who take the ball to start a big game like this. But when he made the decision in Spring Training that he wanted to be a closer again, this is the type of moment he wanted.
When the last out came Sunday, there he was, on the mound as everyone charged onto the diamond. The Red Sox completed an amazing comeback to get to the World Series, and the young Papelbon threw the pitch that sealed it.
"It's not the reason why I went back into the 'pen to be the closer," Papelbon said after the 11-2 victory over the Indians in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, "but you know what? It's part of the job. This is what I envisioned when I went back."
It probably wasn't the postgame dance, but that's another matter.
When Papelbon took the mound for the ninth inning, he had a nine-run cushion with which to record his first save of the postseason. The final score, however, reflected nothing of the situation with which he entered an inning earlier to help put the game away.
Hideki Okajima had thrown well enough for the sixth and seventh innings that manager Terry Francona sent him back out for the eighth. Okajima had worked more than six outs just once this year, that coming July 7 in an extra-inning marathon at Detroit. But on Sunday, he had retired the side on 11 pitches in back-to-back innings.
The deeper Okajima could go, the fewer outs for Papelbon, and the greater chance Francona wouldn't have to turn to series MVP Josh Beckett for the final out or two.
"We didn't want to just have Beckett up for one or two hitters," Francona said. "There was talk before the game about not creating a spot for him, but if we needed him, we would go to him."
Once Grady Sizemore bunted his way on leading off the eighth, then Asdrubal Cabrera lined a single through the middle, Travis Hafner was heading up to bat representing the potential tying run. Francona made the move for Papelbon.
Papelbon had gone two innings more than a handful of times in 2006, but he hadn't gone six outs in an appearance this regular season. He did it in ALCS Game 2 only because the game went into extra innings.
Yet as Francona put it afterwards, "That's why we tried not to use him a lot, so he'd have some gas left in the tank. And he's done great."
On Sunday, he certainly did.
Three straight fastballs at 98-99 mph overpowered Hafner, sending the slumping slugger down swinging. Victor Martinez, the Indians' best run producer this season, grounded a first-pitch fastball into a fielder's choice at second. The one who came closest to beating Papelbon was Ryan Garko, whose fly ball took Jacoby Ellsbury to the warning track in right-center field before it was certain the ball was staying in the park.
The drama was all but gone when Papelbon came back out for the ninth, and the anticipation was the feeling rushing through the crowd. After Jhonny Peralta's leadoff single, Papelbon needed four pitches to retire the side. Casey Blake flew out to the depths of the park for the third out, and the celebration was on.
When the Red Sox clinched the AL East a few weeks ago, Papelbon and his celebration dance with teammates was a scene on the field. He promised a different dance Sunday when television cameras caught him immediately after the game, and his jig didn't disappoint.
He has worked 6 1/3 scoreless innings so far this postseason, five of them in the ALCS. Yet given the nature of Boston's wins, his dance might well be the more memorable moments.
Asked later where he gets the ideas, he jokingly said, "The voices in my head. It just kind of comes to you. That's it."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.