(The following is the first in a two-part series on Jonathan Papelbon's view of the Red Sox 2011 season, and what lies ahead for the closer as he heads into free agency.)
It's been 12 days since Jonathan Papelbon walked off the mound in Baltimore.
All that was known at that moment, just minutes after midnight, was that the Red Sox' closer had just watched one of his best big league seasons get punctuated with a walk-off, Robert Andino single that ended his team's season. Papelbon stood in front of his locker, answering all the questions, continuously repeating the mantra that, like the other setbacks within a six-year run as the Sox' closer, this punch-in-the-gut would make him stronger, as both a person and a pitcher.
It could have been a defining moment for many players, but because of what the closer had accomplished, and the events leading up to that ninth inning, the blown save had already been pushed down the list.
Then came the revelations in the days immediately after the Red Sox were sent home, starting with the team's parting of ways with manager Terry Francona.
"I wouldn't say surprised. That's a bad word to use. I would say more like shocked," said Papelbon from his Mississippi home regarding Francona's exit. "The shock value increased and the realization that, you know, if I come back to Boston next year … I was more like, is this really happening? I wasn't surprised. It's hard to be surprised in Boston because every little whisper people try to run with it. It's hard to be surprised."
But, according to Papelbon, there was one big "surprise" thrown the way of the entire Red Sox organization -- the evolution of the Red Sox' historic September collapse.
The closer explained that the reason the Red Sox didn't spring into action within their own clubhouse early on was because many of the issues dragging the team down appeared out of nowhere. And before they knew it, the Sox were sitting home during the postseason after going 7-20 in the regular season's final month, having not won back-to-back games since August 27.
"I think it just snuck up on us," Papelbon said. "It snuck up on Tito. I think it snuck up on [GM Theo Epstein]. I think it snuck up on the players, and I think it snuck up on the leaders in that Red Sox clubhouse that had been there for the past six, seven, eight years.
"That's why I feel like it's kind of hard to point a finger on somebody. But just as quck as it snuck on Tito, with the team being kind of out of sorts, I think it snuck up on the players and the general manager. It snuck up on everybody."
While Papelbon wouldn't identify what specific problems cropped up in that final month, one of the most polarizing issues involving the team was some drinking in the clubhouse during games by pitchers not appearing in that day's game.
As far as the closer was concerned, you could classify the drinking issue as one of those aforementioned surprises.
"I have no idea about that," Papelbon said. "I'm getting ready from the first inning. I come in from [batting practice], and when I get done with BP, I get my pregame meal and do what I need to, and then I start getting ready for the game. As far as starting pitchers drinking in the clubhouse, I would have never seen it because I'm worried about the Jonathan Papelbon-type things. I 'm not worried about if I need to go find out what the starting pitchers are doing. You see what I'm saying? So from 6 o'clock to 7 o'clock I'm trying to get locked in. From 7 o'clock on, I'm in my routine to go get ready. So, no, it was a shock to me. I had no clue."
By all accounts, Papelbon was one of the players who found a successful path throughout the season and didn't stray from the plan. In his first 32 save opportunities, the 30-year-old converted 31 of the chances. It wasn't until the final eight days -- when he blew two saves, both thanks to Andino's heroics -- that the reliever hit any significant bump in the road.
According to Papelbon, the regimented approach he embraced was something he assumed would be followed by his teammates.
"I think everybody in Major League Baseball is their own entity," he said. "So I don't get how people can say, 'You know this didn't work with that.' I think that I'm my own entity. And if I show up to work and bust my ass to put myself in position to do my job … I put myself in position to do my job. If I could put myself in a position to be successful every day, then that's all you can ask from every guy in that clubhouse. And I can't answer that for each person. I don't know if they're doing what they feel like they need to be doing to be successful. That's their personal approach."
"I'm the type of player that … I'm not going to tell you who or what the situation was, I mean they were all minor situations … I need to light a fire up underneath this guy to get him going. … There's a lot of times where I'll be in the dugout and I'll just go up to Dustin [Pedroia] and I'll look into his eyes. I'll be like, 'Alright, you're ready to go. You're not ready to go. You need to find a way to get ready. Let's go.' …
"I feel like I'm trying to do my job, yet at the same time make sure the guys behind me are ready to go, too. I'm just that kind of player where I feel like in that clubhouse, I know what it takes to succeed and I can just look into somebody's eyes and know whether they're ready to go or not. Just like when I'm out there pitching, I can look into those hitters' eyes and know if they're good or not."
When asked at what point he truly started to see some concerning trends in the Red Sox' clubhouse, Papelbon said, "When we were in Tampa Bay, middle of September. When we went there, we lost."
It was a three-game series that saw the Sox get swept by the Rays, extending a losing streak to five games while cutting the Red Sox lead over Tampa Bay in the wild card race to three games.
And, evidently, Papelbon wasn't alone in his concerns.
While most have identified Francona's early September team meeting in Toronto as the moment the Sox attempted to cut their growing troubles off at the pass, Papelbon (and others) point to a meeting called by David Ortiz after the Tampa Bay series as an example of the Sox confronting their crumbling performance.
"You could see the things kind of like, the team kind of unraveling a bit, and I know David could kind of see that, you know, the frustration. So he called a team meeting," Papelbon remembered. "I'm not going to tell you what the team meeting was about. It was just like, 'Hey, let's get our act together. I'm one of the leaders, and this is what we have got to do to succeed. This is what we can't do to fail.'
"I think that not to say it (earlier) isn't David's fault by any means because he didn't know the timing of the whole … [Jason Varitek], [Tim Wakefield] and myself and Dustin and some of the guys that had been in the clubhouse for a little while, had we said, 'Hey, let's get these guys together, let's get our team together, and kind of re-evaluate our plans for the end of the season … if it was two weeks earlier, we might not be sitting on the phone taking about this. This is all hindsight. Nobody knows."
As for the question of whether there was enough clubhouse leadership, Papelbon was once again reflective.
"That's hard to say whether there was enough of that leadership, or whether there was not," he said. "I think that all of us, including Tito, including myself, including David Ortiz, including Dustin Pedroia, including some of these guys in this clubhouse for years and years and years, I think for a lot of us, it was a little too late to realize that, hey, you know what? We're the guys that need to lead this clubhouse."
Papelbon, who will be eligible for free agency five days after the conclusion of the World Series and has not yet talked contract with the Sox, can't predict what the future might hold. He does, however, know one thing …
"If you're saying I had to go through (a situation like) that last month of September for an entire season? No, who would want to do that? We were getting our asses kicked," he said. "Every year things change. Every year clubhouses change. Personnel changes. Do you see what I'm saying? One guy goes, another guy comes in. I don't have a crystal ball. I can't tell you what that clubhouse is going to be like. Yeah, so it's tough, man."
(Part 2, Tuesday: Papelbon ready for the brave new world that is free agency.)