BOSTON — There are a number of players whose names will forever be ingrained in the heads of Red Sox fans. Many greats who made their mark on the city through stellar seasons, heroic postseason runs or booming personalities.
And some who had all three.
One such name is Jonathan Papelbon, who spent the first seven seasons of his 12-year career with Boston. Papelbon, who is appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time, was a member of the 2007 World Series championship team and a staple in the Red Sox’s bullpen throughout his tenure with Boston.
All told, Papelbon finished his Major League career with a 2.44 ERA and 368 saves — 10th most by a pitcher of all time — six All-Star appearances and a World Series ring. Despite all the accolades and his impressive postseason pedigree, Papelbon is perhaps remembered best for the year that set the tone for his career: his 2006 rookie season.
Drafted by the Red Sox in the fourth round of the 2003 Draft out of Mississippi State University, Papelbon transitioned from college closer to Minor League starter. He made his big league debut two years later on July 31, 2005, going 5 1/3 innings against Minnesota in a no-decision. The right-hander appeared in just 17 games for Boston that season, compiling a 2.65 ERA over 34 innings.
Papelbon made three starts in 2005 before moving to the bullpen. The righty appeared out of the ‘pen in late innings, often setting up for Boston’s esteemed closer and the unsung hero of the ’04 World Series: Keith Foulke.
Before looking at the numbers that helped lead Papelbon’s name to a Hall of Fame ballot, let’s rewind a couple of years. Foulke was signed as a free agent in January 2004, and his role was crucial to the team’s 86-year-curse-breaking postseason run. Foulke allowed just one run over the entire playoffs — a solo homer to Larry Walker in Game 3 of the World Series which he quickly overcame by retiring the next two batters. The 31-year-old righty compiled a 0.64 ERA with 19 strikeouts over 11 appearances in the ‘04 playoffs.
Just one year later, the postseason hero struggled throughout the 2005 season as he battled knee injuries. Despite the numbers, it was expected that Foulke would once again be the Red Sox’s closer the following season.
Getting the job
Fast forward to Opening Day of the 2006 season. With the Red Sox leading the Rangers 7-2 in Texas, manager Terry Francona called to Foulke to close the game after Papelbon worked a scoreless eighth inning. Foulke gave up a run on two hits before closing the door.
In the final game of the series with Boston leading 2-1 in the ninth, Francona made a surprising decision, calling on Papelbon over Foulke to close the game. Papelbon got the job done on just 11 pitches with two strikeouts, setting the tone for the remainder of his rookie season.
Papelbon didn’t allow a run in his first 14 games of the 2006 season, giving up just seven hits and striking out 16 over 15 1/3 innings. Over the course of the season, he gave up just three home runs, with the first coming 35 games into his season on June 26.
“He appears to not have any fear when he takes the ball,” catcher Jason Varitek told The Boston Globe in 2006. “I think that he has the attitude to where if [he blows a save] once or twice, it might not happen a third time because he’s going to go out there and try and will his way to being successful. His stuff has a lot to do with that because he has a pretty big margin of error because of the stuff that he has.”
Papelbon would go on to pitch in 59 games for Boston in 2006, finishing the season with a mere 0.92 ERA and 35 saves — which remains a single-season record for the most by a Red Sox rookie. The stellar season earned Papelbon his first of six All-Star nods, and second place in American League Rookie of the Year voting, falling short of the Tigers’ Justin Verlander.
It was smooth sailing for Papelbon for most of 2006, before a shoulder subluxation on Sept. 1 sidelined the pitcher for the remainder of the season. Ahead of the offseason, the Red Sox announced that Papelbon would move from the bullpen to the rotation in ’07.
When Spring Training rolled around, nobody had emerged as a prominent closer candidate. Papelbon took it upon himself to volunteer, having a solid case for the role after his previous season.
“I felt that there was always that feeling deep down in my heart that I wanted to close,” Papelbon told reporters after a Spring Training game against the Phillies in 2007. “For me, it just kept getting at me and getting at me until finally I went to our captain [Varitek] one day and I said, ‘Tek, I’m not sleeping good at night … I think I want to close, that’s what I want to do.’
“… I told Tito, ‘If you want to give me the ball in the ninth inning, I want it.’ And that’s basically it.”
Francona agreed and the righty reprised his role as closer for the remainder of his Red Sox run. When all was said and done, Papelbon left Boston with a 2.33 ERA, 219 saves, 509 strikeouts and a championship ring.
Papelbon would go on to play four seasons with the Phillies before closing out his career with the Nationals from 2015-16.