Boston If there were still any doubt about Jonathan Papelbon's bulletproof nature this time of year, it should have been removed early Sunday morning.
Carl Crawford hit a rocket back through the box in the 10th inning of the Rays' eventual 9-8 victory, a pulsating win in 11 in St. Petersburg that took nearly 51â2 hours and knotted this American League Championship Series at a game apiece.
Crawford's ball appeared to strike the Red Sox closer on or near his right shoulder before ricocheting right to second baseman Dustin Pedroia for a lucky out. At this point millions of Sox fans stopped breathing.
As Boston manager Terry Francona trotted to the mound with a team trainer in tow, Papelbon just stood there smirking. Typically in such situations, the pitcher will take a few warmup tosses just to make sure he's all right.
Papelbon, being Papelbon, refused. In fact he seemed mildly ticked at this in-game intrusion.
"He said it hit him in the glove," Francona said Sunday at Fenway Park, where the series resumes at 7 tonight. "I don't believe him."
Francona smiled. At this time of year there may no Boston player more worthy of his manager's belief than the indomitable Papelbon.
Fourteen times he has taken the postseason mound, dating to his rookie year in 2005. He has yet to allow a single earned run in those 22 innings, a major league record.
He surpassed the late knuckleballer Joe Niekro in this ALCS opener, and judging from the seven outs Papelbon has recorded so far in this series there is no end in sight.
Of the 75 batters he has faced at the most important time of year, just 14 have reached on a hit or walk.
He is perfect in six save chances, with two wins as well.
What's his secret?
"I just think the overall environment and the overall intensity really make me take my game to a new level," Papelbon says. "That locks me in a little bit more."
Considering how good he's been in his three-plus seasons, converting 88 percent of his save chances, that's saying something. But Papelbon, for all the caricatures of him as a Riverdancin', wisecrackin' good ol' boy from Jacksonville, truly gets it.
When it comes to a career that is still just getting started, he takes a refreshingly mature view. At 27, he seems to grasp the immense gift he has been handed and sets the bar accordingly.
He speaks of the great Mariano Rivera, his Yankees counterpart who has nailed down 34 postseason saves in a Hall of Fame career.
Yet even Rivera was allowed to ease into his postseason greatness. He made 11 October appearances as a setup man for John Wetteland before the Yankees handed him the closer's job in '97.
The Rays beat Papelbon just last month at Fenway on journeyman Dan Johnson's walkoff homer.
Ah, but that wasn't October, was it?
In this magical month, the formula for the Red Sox has been simple: Hand a late lead to Papelbon. Game over.
"That's what I'm shooting for," he says. "That's what my goal is. That's what I try to put on my back and go with. To me that's a big bullet in my gun, you know?"
Happy hunting, Pap.