WASHINGTON — By all appearances, Jonathan Papelbon is handling the pressure cooker of the ninth inning much better in August thank July:
In fairness to Papelbon, this could have been 17 seconds of prayer, self-reflection or meditation to get back in the zone of pitching. This could be something that happens every game, but doesn’t appear on the broadcast.
It is definitely unfamiliar territory.
Newly acquired closer Mark Melancon made his first three appearances for the Nationals in non-save situations, closing out 14-1, 8-3 and 5-1 wins. It was not until Sunday afternoon that he appeared in a save situation, closing out a clutch 1-0 win.
If Papelbon’s mid-afternoon sunning session seems unusual, consider the last time that Papelbon was a non-closer.
In 2005, his rookie campaign with the Boston Red Sox, Papelbon made three starts in his first three appearances, earning three wins and a 2.25 ERA. With a strong rotation, he was moved to the bullpen, where he pitched middle relief through the end of the season.
He earned his first career Major League save on April 5, 2006 at Texas. From there, he spent the next 12 seasons, including six All-Star campaigns, as his team’s primary option to close out games. That was true in Boston, Philadelphia and his first year in Washington, D.C.
Now, his role is somewhat undefined. Since the Melancon trade on July 31, Papelbon has appeared in just two games; the seventh inning of a 14-1 win on August 1, and the eighth and ninth innings of a 1-7 loss on Saturday.
How his role will develop down the stretch is probably up to him. If he can redevelop the consistency he had earlier in the season, then he has the potential to remain in a late inning role.
If not, he could end up with a chance for more late-inning sun sessions.