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Papelbon preserves finale with Rangers

Papelbon preserves finale with Rangers

ARLINGTON -- Whether it was Curt Schilling's right arm or Big Papi's big bat, Sunday might as well have been revival night for the Red Sox.

Then again, both of those feel-good stories -- Schilling's seven solid innings and David Ortiz's first two homers of the season -- would have dissipated if not for a Herculean closing effort by Jonathan Papelbon.

In the same venue as his coming-out party as closer in Game 3 of the 2006 season, Papelbon once again had a large effort at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, preserving a 3-2 win over the Rangers that earned close to a top score on the degree of difficulty scale.

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"The way it finished was awesome," said Schilling after watching Papelbon save his first win of the year. "That was just an unbelievable job."

Consider the sticky situation Papelbon inherited in the eighth. Joel Pineiro walked a pair of batters to start the inning and then Kenny Lofton dropped down a bunt that Mike Lowell couldn't make a play on, thanks to three defenders in his line of sight.

With bases loaded and nobody out, Javy Lopez came in and pinch-hitter Nelson Cruz hit a screaming line drive that deflected off the glove of Kevin Youkilis, who got the force at second with a run coming home to make it 3-2.

With runners at the corners and one out and the Rangers meaty middle of Michael Young and Mark Teixeira looming, manager Terry Francona was not going to wait any longer. On came Papelbon.

A 96-mph fastball on the outside black froze Young for strike three. Teixeira popped up a first-pitch fastball to Lowell and just like that, the Red Sox were out of it with the lead intact.

"Pap's our guy, but what he did against that middle of the order, you're not going to see that very often against them. I don't care who it is," Francona said.

Just another night in Texas for Papelbon, who kicked off his career as a closer with an eerily similar display of dominance at the same venue one year ago. While last year's performance backed up Francona's decision to make Papelbon the closer, this was a reinforcement of how large it was for the Red Sox to reinstate the flame-throwing righty as last-call specialist late in Spring Training.

"Texas has been good to me," Papelbon said. "This is my opening as a closer, and hopefully Texas still stays good to me."

All in all, just an immensely gratifying win by the Red Sox. A loss, and they would have been swept. Instead, they travel home for Tuesday's Fenway Park opener on the heels of a respectable 3-3 trip.

"We needed to win tonight," said Francona. "We're playing a team that's trying to sweep us, and they're starting to feel good about themselves and we've got a day off tomorrow."

Schilling needed it from an individual standpoint. All those who fretted about the ace's subpar performance on Opening Day could put their fears to rest, as the big right-hander looked like his vintage self. He allowed just four hits and a run, walking one and striking out six.

"It's been a grind," Schilling said after career win No. 208. "I'd love to tell you that I'm sitting on top of the world and there's nothing I can't do, but I'm working hard to get mentally back to where I need to be, to be the pitcher I know I am. I felt good. It was a good win."

If not for Big Papi, however, this could have been a no-decision or worse for Schilling. Vicente Padilla (seven innings, four hits, three runs) held down most of the Red Sox, but he had no answer for Ortiz.

Ortiz gave the first hint that his mini-slump was over by unloading a solo homer to right -- No. 1 on the season -- with two outs in the first. The liner was hit with such authority that Sammy Sosa barely moved form his position in right field.

"Like every year, I always come in and fight, fight, fight until you get that one feeling we all like to get," said Ortiz, who entered the night hitting .158 with one RBI.

A far less powerful man produced the same result in the bottom of the inning, with Red Sox and Schilling nemesis Frank Catalanotto belting a homer to right. That gave Catalanotto 11 hits in 20 career at-bats against Schilling.

"We threw him a 2-1 changeup, and I didn't think it was a bad pitch and I left it middle in, and he just dropped the bat head on it, which is where he's going to hit his home runs," Schilling said. "I wasn't trying to throw it there, but I just didn't make the pitch."

Big Papi broke the tie with another mighty cut in the third, this one a two-out, two-run launch to right-center.

"It's always nice to see David get in the swing of things," said Schilling.

Still, it nearly wasn't enough. Enter Papelbon.

"We got into a little bit of a bind. It's first and third and the middle of their order," Francona said. "It's just hard to let a game get away without using Pap. I just don't want to see the game decided without him having something to say about it."

Oh, Papelbon's lightning bolt of an arm spoke loudly.

"That last pitch [to Young] was money," said Lowell. "On the corner, black. Unbelievable. That's the added umph that Pap has. It just rises. It's great that he's on our staff. It's a big advantage for us."

Papelbon still had plenty left for the ninth, finishing off his second save in as many opportunities with a popup of Sosa, and Ks of Hank Blalock and Brad Wilkerson.

"I think everyone knows what he means, but that job tonight against the guys he did it against in the fashion he did it was unbelievable," said Schilling.

Papelbon looks at it as nothing more than his line of duty.

"For me, I revel in the fact that I can go in there and shut the door down and do my job," said Papelbon. "That's what I was put on this team to do."

At this point, who would argue?

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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