After saving the second game of Saturday night's doubleheader with a perfect ninth, Papelbon labored (one inning, three hits and two runs) on Sunday before finally closing out the save.
Sometimes, Papelbon produces near-perfect outings for weeks at a time. Last week, he struggled twice.
"I think he had 15 in a row [before that]," said Francona. "I think the common thread is he's not perfect. His velocity was pretty good. I didn't think the finish on his fastball was what it normally is. He didn't locate perfect. That's a pretty good fastball-hitting team.
"The good news from where we are, we had a three-run lead and he gave up two. [He] threw a couple of splits they didn't bite on. When he's going real good, he locates that fastball and he throws his split and he'll throw an occasional slider. But he missed a little bit with his fastball and didn't get his split where he wanted to. That's basically what it was."
Since Papelbon had a scare with his right shoulder in September 2006, the Red Sox have been extremely mindful of his usage.
Francona said that the dilemma is no more difficult in the heat of the pennant race.
"You know what? It's not that hard," Francona said. "If he's not supposed to pitch, we won't pitch him. We've been pretty consistent in how we do it. We never make that decision once the game starts. If we decide after we talk to Pap that it's a good day for him to be down, then he's down."
The lines of communication are constantly open between Francona and Papelbon, who have a close relationship.
"We talk to [assistant trainer Mike Reinold], [pitching coach] John Farrell, myself and Pap all together," Francona said. "He's done a very good job. You know that bravado you hear out of the clubhouse, he's kind of a younger kid having fun. But he'll give you a real intelligent answer when you talk to him about his arm. He's done a good job."
A year ago, the Red Sox left enough fuel in Papelbon's tank to have him air it out in the World Series, when he saved the final three games in Boston's sweep over Colorado.
"There's going to be a time when we need him to go do it," Francona said. "We did it last year in the World Series. But I thought he had enough left to do it."