Jonathan Papelbon: The mentality of a closer

It's becoming a baseball cliché, the thought that closers are mean, tough, intimidating figures on the mound. In the big leagues, when the game is on the line, some of the most over-powering pitchers are called upon. For Mississippi State, that pitcher might just be Jonathan Papelbon, a sophomore fire-baller from Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville, Fla.

His 6-3 frame aside, it isn't his figure that has opposing hitters dreading a plate appearance versus Papelbon. It's his 88-92 mph fastball, which has professional scouts drooling. And Papelbon has the mentality that all closers seem to have.

"I think as a closer you have to have a mentality. I want to be out there when the game is on the line," he said. "I like to throw the ball inside on the hitters. You want to overpower hitters and you can do that by throwing inside on them.

"But I want to get the call when the game is on the line. The way I see it, I trust my teammates out in the field, and they trust me on the mound."

Papelbon has always been a closer. In high school, he didn't get many starts on the mound. He was a regular at first base, and was called upon in relief.

"I think the closers and starters have different roles," he said. "Obviously, you are trying to do the same thing, which is get people out. But as a closer, there are going to be people on base with the game on the line when you come in. I think it takes a different kind of person to be a relief pitcher. That is why I like to do it."

Growing up in Florida, Papelbon, the son of a collegiate softball player, was always surrounded by talent. Summer leagues challenged him as much as his high school competition. But that competition has driven him, and has molded him into the pitcher that he is today.

"Competition has gotten me where I am today," he said. "Competition makes you better. I had to compete just to make the team in high school, and even here we are competing with one another every day.

"I work my butt off on the baseball field because I want to be the best player that I can be."

The hard work has paid off. The sophomore righty leads the team in appearances, notching nine innings in a team-high four appearances through State's first nine games. Papelbon has struck out 17 batters in those nine innings, has yet to give up a walk or an earned run, and has the team's only save so far this season. Opponents are hitting just .129 against him.

Scouts love his size and love his fastball even more. The interest has led to speculation that "Paps" could get drafted in the next amateur draft.

"I haven't really thought about that," he said. "I can't say that I wouldn't leave early but I can't say that I would. There are a lot of factors. But my parents are leaving the decision up to me.

"One of my goals is to compete for a national championship. So I wouldn't leave early unless we had done that here."

Papelbon left the Sunshine State, like many in a growing line of Bishop Kenny alums have done before him. He said he chose State, not because his high school coach, former MSU graduate assistant Bob West, coerced him to, but because he wanted to get away. The Bulldog baseball tradition didn't hurt his decision, either.

"It doesn't get any better than this," he said. "The tradition here is awesome. I came up for the Alabama game on Super Bulldog Weekend my senior year of high school. There were over 10,000 people here. I sat back and told myself that I could see myself playing here."

Three years later, Papelbon is playing an integral role in Ron Polk's first season back. The new coaching staff has tested him, and thus far the redshirt sophomore has stood the challenge. But there will be tougher days ahead.

Papelbon has faith that this year's squad has the talent to not only play in Omaha, but also compete for the crown.

"The talent is there, there is no doubt about that," he said. "We are just going to have to go to the next level with it. We have to make things happen. If we don't get to Omaha, I won't consider it a good season."

As intense and competitive as Papelbon is on the field, he claims to have an easy-going demeanor off the field. He takes the slogan "one day at a time" to heart.

"Whatever happens on the field stays on the field. I don't take any of that stuff home with me," he said. "I'm a happy-go-lucky person and I don't think too far ahead."

When asked where he saw himself 10-15 years from now, if he wasn't still playing baseball, Papelbon, who is 26 credits shy of finishing up an Educational Psychology degree, admitted that he has never thought about it.

"I live for today," he said after much thought. "I would like to see myself playing in the big leagues. I think I have the mentality and the talent to get there."

"But whatever I'm doing, I want to be happy. If I am happy, I could be a garbage collector, as long as I like what I'm doing. I don't have a lot of stress in my life now, and I want to keep it that way. If I am happy, life is good."

How refreshing to see someone so young understand what many older people never learn.


Aaron SonesAaron Sones is a free-lance correspondent for Gene's Page. Aaron, who is a student at Mississippi State University, works part-time in the MSU Athletic Department. He is also co-host of WFCA FM 108's Gameday show which airs two hours prior to each football game. You can contact him by email at asones8@aol.com.

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