The Red Sox closer fired a 95 m.p.h. fastball up in the zone, and Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick could not hold back on a checked swing. The game-ending strikeout registered as the sixth-straight out recorded by Jonathan Papelbon.
The adrenaline-charged pitcher punctuated his team’s 7-5 win by shouting and beating his chest. The demonstration served as the pronouncement of the alpha closer.
Francisco Rodriguez may have set a record by collecting an obscene 62 saves for the Angels this year. But that standard of excellence became instantly meaningless in Game 2 of the Division Series between the Red Sox and Angels.
While Rodriguez holds a record—a flawed one at that—for his position during the regular season, he has been a shadow of Papelbon when the games count.
Papelbon “blew a save” on Friday after entering a game with no outs and a runner on third in the bottom of the eighth thanks to a game-tying sac fly by Angels slugger Mark Teixeira. Papelbon overpowered the Angels for two innings in which he did not permit a baserunner.
The performance earned the 27-year-old his second career playoff win. He also has five saves in October, and has not allowed a run in 17.2 postseason innings—the second longest streak in postseason history, behind only Joe Niekro’s 20 scoreless frames. It is, according to Papelbon, no accident.
“For me, being in the postseason in these types of ballgames, I’ve always told myself the coolest cucumber wins,” he said. “October is a time when there’s no mistakes. There’s no time for error. You have to be perfect. That’s what October’s about. In October, these hitters have had 500, 600 (at-bats). They’ve seen thousands of pitches over the season. They’re going to key on your mistakes. You’ve got to be perfect.”
Papelbon has lived up to that mandate. K-Rod…not so much.
Rodriguez emerged from complete obscurity to dominate as a set-up man in the 2002 playoffs, claiming a record five wins to help propel the Angels to a championship. But since then, he has been ordinary, failing to live up to his regular-season standards.
The game-winning, two-run homer that Rodriguez permitted to J.D. Drew on Friday was merely the latest marker of October failure for the Halos closer. He has been a postseason piñata for the Red Sox in the three Division Series featuring the two clubs.
K-Rod has now appeared in four playoff games against the Sox. The winning run was either charged to him or crossed the plate while he was on the mound in all four contests.
Rodriguez is 0-3 with a 7.71 ERA in those games. The only time he was not pegged with a loss was Game 2 of last year’s Division Series, when he entered the game with the go-ahead run on base and ended up getting whiplash when Manny Ramirez sent one of his pitches to Canada.
The Sox did not say any of this, of course. Instead, they offered the Angels hurler the respect due one of the best closers in the game.
“Hopefully we don’t have to see (Rodriguez) again,” said Sox corner infielder Kevin Youkilis. “You hope to get to him mentally. But he’s a pretty strong guy mentally. I think he forgets about (failure) pretty easy. “
He will have to. Rodriguez seemed stunned, even despondent after permitting the homer to Drew.
The Angels closer has made a habit of pointing skyward to punctuate his saves. On Friday, the one-time phenom’s head sagged. He would offer no comment on his failure. Nor did he have to do so. The final score said everything about the stature of two pitchers closers in October.
Though Rodriguez had a remarkable season, October is a different animal. One can compare the distinction between the regular season and the playoffs to that of being a set-up man and a closer. It is a different beast to tame.
Rodriguez’ record-setting 2008 march to 62 saves represented, for many, all that is wrong in the modern closer. He never appeared prior to the ninth inning. He never pitched more than an inning. Of his 76 appearances, 70 were with his team leading, and just five took place with his team in a tie game. (One was a mere tune-up, with his team down by several runs.)
But those regimented situations are not the template for October. Teams thrive if they can expand the roles of their best pitchers, and so closers are asked to enter tie games, to come in with runners on base and to work multiple innings.
“Here in the playoffs, it’s a little different,” said Sox third baseman Mike Lowell. “I don’t think Pap ever came in with no outs in the eighth all year. These are games where there’s a lot more at stake than, ‘Hey, we’ve got to save our bullpen for down the road.’ There is no down the road.
“I think they’re going to be using them, like we saw them today, in a different capacity. Again, they have to have the mental makeup and proper preparation. I know K-Rod got hit, but it’s not like he was imploding. We hit good pitches. Good teams hit good pitching. That’s no knock against him.”
Actually, it is. In the postseason, Rodriguez is now 5-4 with three saves and a 3.23 ERA—a good mark, to be sure, but almost a full run worse than the 2.35 regular-season ERA that he has achieved.
Papelbon, meanwhile, offers a sense of near-certainty that he will put a zero on the board, particularly against the Angels. Including both the regular season and the last two Octobers, the current members of the Angels are 2-for-51 (.039) with 19 strikeouts against the obstacle at the back end of the Boston bullpen.
There is no question of Papelbon’s ability to adapt to the irregular demands of October. He understands the changed nature of his job description in the playoffs.
“You know you’ve got to get more outs—things like that,” he said. “I want to be the best that I can be at what I do. That’s part of being the best that you can be.”
Until Rodriguez demonstrates the ability to follow suit, his regular-season saves record will no doubt ring hollow.
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.