A Papelbon appearance in the ninth inning has come to mean victory handshakes for the Red Sox a vast majority of the time. But suddenly, Papelbon has blown two consecutive save opportunities, and Friday's stinger -- a two-out, two-run single in the ninth by Mike Lamb that lifted the Twins to a 7-6 victory at the Metrodome -- was by far the tougher one for Papelbon to take.
Lamb didn't hit the ball hard. But the bloop over third baseman Mike Lowell's head with runners at second and third left Papelbon taking it hard.
"It's frustrating right now, just for the simple fact that I'm throwing good pitches, but I'm just not finishing them right now and executing them all the way through the strike zone," Papelbon said. "I'm sitting there in a comfortable position where I want to be. One out to get. I don't finish the split-finger and he speeds his bat up and bloops it over the third baseman."
The Red Sox had overcome an early 5-2 deficit with a four-run rally in the fifth inning, highlighted by Lowell's two-run double. Starter Jon Lester and relievers David Aardsma and Hideki Okajima protected the one-run lead until the ninth, when manager Terry Francona handed the ball to his star closer.
Delmon Young started the ninth with a single and Matt Tolbert sacrificed him to second. Papelbon got Adam Everett on a popup, but Young stole third and Carlos Gomez walked. It was the first walk issued by Papelbon since the first batter he faced this season.
The stakes were raised moments later when Gomez stole second without a throw. Instead of a single to the outfield only tying the game, the Twins were in position to bloop one in for a win.
"We don't want to vacate the shortstop hole," Francona said. "There are about three different reasons -- who's running, who's pitching, giving up the hole. You never are happy letting the lead run [move up], but considering all the options, the biggest thing is we don't want to have someone vacating their position."
It still came down to Papelbon needing to get Lamb for the save, and it was the type of situation that Papelbon will take every time.
"I've got one out to get," Papelbon said. "It's a pretty simple game. I've got to execute a pitch with two strikes and the job is done. I didn't do that."
It's said that great closers have short memories, and Papelbon is anxious to make the adjustments and move forward.
"I've got to get back on track," Papelbon said. "In order to do that, I've got to start finishing my pitches and throwing my pitches with confidence."
Lester made it through 5 1/3 innings and survived a scare when he covered first base in the third inning and mildly rolled an ankle covering the bag.
"I stepped on the bag wrong, but it shouldn't be any concern at all," Lester said.
Although the Twins got four runs in the opening two innings, Lester said he was generally pleased with the way he threw the ball. An error by shortstop Julio Lugo led to two unearned runs in the second.
It seemed the Red Sox offense had done just enough with the four-run rally in the fifth. After loading the bases with nobody out, Lowell hit the gap in left-center for his two-run double. Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire lifted starter Boof Bonser and Juan Rincon came on. Kevin Youkilis produced a run-scoring groundout and a wild pitch by Rincon allowed Lowell to score the go-ahead run.
The Boston defense executed a dazzling relay play in the sixth when Young tried to score on Everett's double to left-center. The relay from Jacoby Ellsbury to Dustin Pedroia to Jason Varitek was picture perfect, and Young was out at the plate.
But what looked for 8 2/3 innings like another Red Sox success ended with a fizzle on that two-run blooper by Lamb.
"I haven't had too many balls fall in for me," said Lamb.
This one did. Even when Papelbon is on the mound, there can be exceptions to his ninth-inning rules.
Robert Falkoff is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.