Whatever you want to call it, it's important to note that as far as Papelbon himself was concerned, Saturday's electric two-inning stint against the Phillies was a start, not a relief appearance.
Papelbon came on for Tim Wakefield and treated the third and fourth inning like it was the first and second. Then again, it looked a lot like the ninth innings that he pitched a year ago. Whatever the role, Papelbon can bring the heat.
In this one, he sent down all six batters he faced, striking out four.
"I prepared like it was going to be a start," said Papelbon. "I prepared on Field 2 and took it like it was a normal start. Went into my bullpen routine, my warmup routine on the field and that's going to be a big part of my success this year as a starter -- having a solid foundation and a solid routine to where I know what I've got day in and day out to do. I think that if you've got a plan and an approach, you can always set yourself up for success."
During those dominant summer nights of 2006, Papelbon's plan was a lot simpler. He'd take the ball in the ninth inning and blow the ball by everyone.
When Saturday's outing started, Papelbon's main focus was to pace himself and not throw each pitch with the intensity of a closer.
"I did, I really did," said Papelbon. "That was the first thing that [manager Terry Francona] told me in our meeting was not to go out there and go full steam ahead the first start. There's a part of me that kind of had to back down a little bit and really just take my pre-pitch routine and post-pitch routine and slow the game up and get into the routine again of being a starting pitcher."
Even as he held himself back, Papelbon struck out the side in his first inning, capping it off by blowing a 93-mph fastball right by reigning National League MVP Ryan Howard.
Talk about power vs. power on a steamy March day.
"I love pitching to Ryan," said Papelbon. "He's a great guy. We've become friends over the last couple of years, and what he's done for baseball and for the Phillies has been outstanding. It's always fun. It makes the game fun when you get matchups like that. I know he's a great hitter, so hopefully most of the time, I'll get on the good side of those."
Everyone knows how good Papelbon's stuff is, and what type of fearlessness he has on the mound. The challenge in transitioning back to starting -- a role he got to know well in the Minor Leagues -- is building up his endurance and gaining command of all of his pitches.
"The biggest challenge from going from closer to a starter is going to be getting to that seventh or eighth inning the first month of the season," said Papelbon. "It's going to be a process for me to get back and hopefully after that first two months of the season are under way, I'm going to be able to really feel like, 'Hey, I'm in this role and it's here to stay."'
The fastball and splitter will always be there. Papelbon is trying to get the curve and slider back to where he needs them.
Because it was such a short stint -- 26 pitches, 18 for strikes -- Papelbon only needed to snap one curveball.
"My slider and curve are slowly coming," he said. "I'm slowly starting to feel better. As each day goes on, I'm getting more confidence."
Can Papelbon be as dominant in the starting role as he was as an All-Star closer? Opinions vary, but Papelbon is the type of person who sets his standards somewhere around the moon.
"Yeah, I think so," said Papelbon. "Being dominant is a totally different definition as a closer than as a starter. Being a dominant starter is someone who gets their team to the seventh, eighth inning. A starter that can roll over lineups. A starter who makes his starts day after day and week after week. A starter that goes out there and gives his club what they deserve and what they need."
If not for Papelbon's shoulder injury last September, perhaps he would still be a closer. But he doesn't look back. The life that he lost on his fastball at the end of last year is back. So is the finish to his pitches, which make the baseball seem as if it is exploding into the catcher's mitt.
"I feel that I have it back and I feel like I should be able to have it to my advantage this year," said Papelbon.
Sure, it's early in Spring Training. Nonetheless, this was an eye-opening first outing.
"That was actually very exciting," said Francona. "He threw the fastball that we've come to know and appreciate. He threw some very good splits and a couple of breaking balls. He was outstanding. It was exciting to see."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.