This Boston baseball season has been tumultuous. The Red Sox have enjoyed and suffered through alternate stretches of great and terrible baseball.
We never seem to know if they are in the hunt for a playoff sport or if this is a dreaded "bridge" season.
Now they have a full-blown closer controversy.
A closer controversy is not unlike a quarterback controversy. You know the drill: veteran star struggles... kid steps in and makes everything look easy... fans want to kick the old guy to the curb and go with the young gun.
Say hello to Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard, the two most important residents of the Red Sox bullpen.
Papelbon is only 29 (he turns 30 in November), but he has been Boston's stud closer for five seasons. He converted 113 of`127 save opportunities in his first three seasons. He's the franchise's all-time saves leader, with more than 29 in each of his last five seasons. He closed out a World Series for the Red Sox in 2007. He has been an All-Star. There was a time when he had the lowest ERA in the history of baseball. He pitched shutout ball in the first 26.1 innings of his postseason life, a career-starting October scoreless string exceeded only by Christy Mathewson. Among American League closers in this century, only Mariano Rivera has been better than Jonathan Papelbon.
Despite all of the above, there's a conga-line of Sox fans ready to take the ball out of Papelbon's hands and entrust the Sox closer role to the 25-year-old Bard.
Bard, who's right-handed like Papelbon, looks the part. He's tall, rangy, has great hair and throws 100 miles an hour. Just four years out of the University of North Carolina, Bard is a classic flamethrower with unusual control and command.
Pitching predominantly in eighth-inning situations, Bard is 1-2 with a 2.01 ERA this year. He has 57 strikeouts and 18 walks in 53.2 innings. He has given up five homers.
Papelbon, meanwhile, is 4-5 with a career-high 3.20 ERA. His WHIP is on the rise. He's allowing more homers and walks and isn't striking out as many batters. He has blown six saves, including a memorable flameout in Toronto last Thursday when he couldn't protect a two-run lead. Papelbon allowed three earned runs in the ninth of that horrible loss, and after the game manager Terry Francona admitted that his veteran closer hasn't had the same command of his pitches this year. Overall he has 20 walks and 46 strikeouts in 50.2 innings. He has allowed six homers.
Unfortunately for Papelbon, he imploded in Toronto just three days after Bard enjoyed a career-defining moment in Yankee Stadium.
Last Monday in the Bronx, Bard was summoned to face Derek Jeter and Nick Swisher with the bases loaded and one out in the seventh. He struck out both, throwing only six pitches. Each of those pitches was clocked at between 97 and 99 miles per hour. The third strike to Swisher was a 98-mph fastball that tailed away. It was truly an unhittable pitch.
Fans conveniently forget that one inning later Bard surrendered a monstrous home run to Mark Teixeira and that it was actually Papelbon who saved the 2-1 win by striking out Teixeira on a 2-2 splitter with Jeter on second in the ninth. It's much easier and more fun to suggest that the Sox trade Papelbon and give his job to Bard.
Much of this sentiment started last October, when Papelbon set himself on fire in the third and final playoff game against the Angels.
Papelbon had a 6-4 lead with two out and nobody aboard in the ninth, then surrendered three runs on a hail of hits and walks. He abandoned his splitter and threw only fastballs. It was the last hurrah for the 2009 Red Sox and convinced much of the fandom to say goodbye to the Big Galoot with the gaudy resume.
Not me. If I'm Francona or GM Theo Epstein, I'm sticking with Jonathan Papelbon as my closer. He is a known quantity. He has a few bullets left before he wears out his right shoulder (the Sox had to shut him down due to shoulder issues at the end of 2006) or leaves via free agency. Bard is a great-looking young pitcher, but we simply don't know if he has the makeup or the arsenal of a closer. We know that Papelbon has both.
Papelbon is sufficiently goofy for the job. Last winter he looped the ALDS video and forced himself to watch the car wreck over and over while he did his workouts. He said it motivated him.
That's accountability. That's a guy who you want closing the big games for you.