Papelbon's year has exceeded even his wildest fantasy. Just hoping to make the team in spring training, Papelbon has been a dominating closer in the Boston Red Sox bullpen, earning a spot on the All Star team while leading the playoff push for one of the sport's most storied franchises.
"It's fun," says Papelbon. "I love Boston. I think Boston has treated me well, and I love being part of the city and part of the community."
Papelbon came to spring training as a highly touted Red Sox prospect. The team was grooming him to become a starting pitcher in the Boston rotation by the 2007 season. His role on this year's team was less clear. A series of trades and injuries didn't make the situation any easier to read.
"Spring training started, and it was basically up in the air what my job was going to be," he says. "Then we traded (veteran staring pitcher) Bronson Arroyo, and next thing you know, it looked like I was going to start. Then (injured veteran starting pitchers) David Wells and Matt Clement got well, and we've got five quality starting pitchers coming out of spring training. So I think there's really no room for me in the rotation. (Boston manager) Terry Francona basically said, 'Hey, we still want you on the team. We've just got to find a spot for you.'"
When Red Sox closer Keith Foulke, an All Star relief pitcher who led the team to the 2004 World Series title, went down with an arm injury, Papelbon was thrust into a new role.
"A spot opened up with Foulke being on the disabled list. I just kind of took the opportunity and ran with it."
Papelbon received a crash course in relief pitching, which brought him a sense of deja vu. Changing roles is nothing new to Papelbon, who came to Mississippi State as an infielder. When coaches saw his powerful right arm during a practice throwing session, he became a full-time pitcher.
Despite his desire to start for the Bulldogs, the team needed a reliever to close out the opposition in the ninth inning. Three years later, Papelbon left MSU with the seventh highest number of saves in school history. He led the school with 22 relief appearances and went 3-4 with five saves as a sophomore. In his junior year, he was even better, going 6-2 with seven saves and a 2.28 ERA.
Boston drafted Papelbon in the fourth round, convincing him to forgo his senior year at Mississippi State. With one of the top collegiate relievers under contract, the Red Sox decided to convert him into a starting pitcher.
Papelbon doesn't seem fazed by the constantly changing roles. "I just tell my coaches, I'll take the job with open arms and give you all I've got," he says.
That's been plenty good enough for the Red Sox. He didn't give up his first run until May, in his fifteenth appearance of the season. He didn't give up a second run until June 26.
At the end of July, Papelbon's earned run average was a ridiculously low 0.54, and he was striking out a batter an inning. His thirty saves in four months put him among the league leaders in the category and made him a folk hero at Fenway Park.
"I love the pressure," Papelbon says of being a closer. "I want to be the guy to have the ball when the game's on the line. It's just the way I've always been."
While any successful Red Sox player will be popular with the Boston fans, Papelbon has also won over his veteran teammates. He traded All Star jerseys with Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, and Ortiz proudly displays Papelbon's jersey in his locker.
Jonathan Papelbon is making it all look easy in his rookie year. The transition to the big leagues, adjusting to life in the heart of New England, after growing up in the south, switching from starter to relief with a few days notice? No problem.
Of course, more change is on the horizon. While Papelbon's spot in the bullpen is safe for the 2006 playoff run, the team still has him penciled in as a starter. And former closer Keith Foulke's arm should allow him to resume his old role at some point.
Papelbon shrugs off the uncertainty. "I think they're going to determine that when spring training rolls around next year," he says. "I'm just taking it a day at a time and trying to enjoy myself."
The rookie All Star who gives up about a run a month shouldn't have any problem enjoying his wild wild year.
Shawn Krest is a freelance writer who writes articles about former Mississippi State athletes currently in the pros for the Dawgs' Bite Powered by GenesPage.com website.