The Red Sox haven’t given up on winning the A.L. East just yet.
For proof, look no further than their usage of Jonathan Papelbon. Since last Sunday, Boston’s closer has thrown five innings, including three-consecutive appearances against Texas and Tampa Bay to start the week.
After three days off, he was back on the hill twice this weekend against Toronto.
But, the results have not been vintage Papelbon.
Despite having six days of rest to start the month, he allowed six hits over three innings against the Rangers and Rays, taking the loss on Tuesday after he gave up a game-tying home run to leadoff batter Dan Johnson, and the lead on back-to-back doubles to Fernando Peréz and Dioner Navarro.
On Saturday, he recorded his only clean frame so far in September. But returning less than 24 hours later, he was lucky to get out with a save, as Toronto rocked him for what could have easily been more than two runs.
Papelbon caught a break as Lyle Overbay was called out on what should have been a double, and rallied to strand the tying run at third.
It was a win against a red-hot division rival that, entering the series, had reinserted themselves into the wild-card discussion by virtue of taking 11 of their last 12.
It was a win that put them one game behind Tampa Bay for the A.L. East.
Hopefully, it was a win—and a week—that gives the Red Sox pause before using their closer on consecutive days down the stretch.
After giving up just one run in the month of August, Papelbon has struggled in September.
Unable to locate his breaking pitches, and unable to prevent his fastball from being driven deep, he is not pitching like the shut-down closer that has anchored the Red Sox's bullpen since the first week of the 2006 season.
With two weeks left, Papelbon has already thrown more innings than he did last season and will probably surpass his career high. Having pitched deep into October less than a year ago, it’s no surprise that he’s looking a little gassed.
But this isn’t just a question of rest. Despite the increased workload, the Red Sox haven’t ridden their closer into the ground. Besides, Papelbon’s bad outings are historically just as likely to come after a few days off as too many days on.
And for all the good it would do his fastball, an extended refresher might exacerbate his control problems on breaking pitches.
Managing a closer’s use is difficult because save situations are impossible to predict. Over the season, long layoffs and periods of overwork tend to even themselves out.
But over the next two weeks, the Red Sox need to keep Jonathan Papelbon fresh without wearing him down. Using him in the traditional closers role provides no guarantee of either.
If Boston is committed to having a closer available each night, it might be worth holding Justin Masterson back for the ninth the day after Papelbon pitches.
Masterson has been lights out in September, but he’s approaching 130 IP after beginning the season as a starter. Using the two pitchers alternately (don’t say committee) would help to manage their workload down the stretch, with the downside of weakening the Sox's middle relief.
Monday’s matchup in Tampa doesn’t help matters. Daisuke Matsuzaka has thrown only five innings in both of his starts against the Rays this year. Unless he can manage his pitch count and go deeper into the game, it’ll be hard for Terry Francona to fill the innings, let alone hold anyone back in a close game.
The best solution would be a big day for the offense, but that’s unlikely against Scott Kazmir.
Boston is halfway through a crucial two-week stretch against the Blue Jays and Rays that could decide the division and eliminate Toronto from the wild card. There’s plenty of pressure on the Red Sox to treat these games as do-or-die. If they can do that by spreading responsibilities, they may become a deeper team in October.
But overusing their bullpen’s strongest weapon has already cost Boston one victory this week—and two games in the standings—and it almost happened again today.