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Papelbon walking fine line

Papelbon walking fine line

PHOENIX -- Jonathan Papelbon seemed none too sharp in the 10th inning at Chase Field on Saturday night and none to pleased about it.

It had been six days since the Boston closer made his last appearance, and on that Sunday night at Fenway Park, Papelbon had allowed the ninth-inning Alex Rodriguez homer that lost a key game to the Yankees.

Against the Diamondbacks in another one-run game, Papelbon's pitches were all over the place. And it took 24 of them to five batters in the bottom of the 10th inning before he nailed down the 4-3 win.

"If you haven't pitched in [six] days it's hard to be Grade A," the right-hander said after recording his 14th save in 15 opportunities. "It's tough to stay sharp. I just have to grind it, man. That's what I have to do. And if I've got to do it, I've got to do it. I don't have any other choice."

Throwing 97-mph fastballs, Papelbon hit one batter (Chris Young) and nearly hit another (Conor Jackson), the latter ultimately legging out an infield hit in the hole between shortstop and third base. With Young running from second on the pitch, rookie Mark Reynolds, who only recently made the jump from Double-A to the Major Leagues, broke his bat softly lining it to second baseman Alex Cora, ending the threat and the game.

It wasn't picture perfect, but it got the job done.

"He's not on any 10-pitch threshold or anything, we just want him to get outs," Red Sox manager said about the 26-year-old right-hander who was converted from a starter to a closer last season. "It's just touch and feel in the bullpen. We don't want to get him up and waste him. We value his innings. We want him to be as fresh late in the season as he is now."

The question in Papelbon's mind is simple: when is fresh, too fresh? Circumstances kept him out of games for the previous five days. Francona didn't use him in a close game on Monday night at Oakland because Papelbon had pitched in the final two games of the Yankee series. And then on Thursday in a 1-0 cliffhanger against the A's, Curt Schilling happened to be pitching a no-hitter so Papelbon didn't get his usual look in the ninth. Schilling lost the no-hitter with one out to go, but he still finished and won the game.

Papelbon wasn't sure what pattern he'd prefer to remain fresh.

"I don't know, because you don't want to throw me on days you don't need me," he said. "Then two or three or four days in a row come when you need me and you can't use me because I've wasted my bullets earlier. It's a tough situation."

The situation is the residue of the shoulder injury Papelbon suffered last season that kept him out for the final month of the season. The Red Sox had already collapsed and ultimately missed the playoffs. Papelbon pitched in 59 games last year, and although he saved 35 games in 41 attempts, added four more wins and had a microscopic 0.92 ERA, something obviously didn't work.

Francona said he takes the blame for it and now is trying to baby Papelbon, who's made only 22 appearances in the club's first 61 games.

"I'd say we're just trying to use good judgment," Francona said. "He's very healthy. We overused him last year. I've learned my lesson. If you don't learn, you're dumb. I don't plan on being dumb or at least dumber than I am. We need Pap and we're going to use him correctly."

Obviously, though, there's a fine balance between overusing him and keeping him sharp. Most closers, after a suffering a devastating loss like the A-Rod game, want to get back out there as soon as possible to work it out of their systems. Not Papelbon.

"I had forgotten about that as soon as I got on the plane [to Oakland] and started losing money in cards," he said.

But he certainly didn't expect to sit around six more days.

"It's a tough thing to manage a closer," he said. "[Francona] has definitely got his hands full. He's obviously decided to throw me only in every perfect situation. And that's a tough gig in itself because every situation I go in I have to be perfect."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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