The mystery of Papelbon's day off lingers

The mystery of Papelbon's day off lingers
May 12, 2014, 9:00 pm
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Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon threw a total of 21 pitches on Friday and Saturday, but was unavailable on Sunday because of soreness and it cost the Phillies a three-game sweep of the Mets. (AP)

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"This generation has a hard time playing with some soreness."

- Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg to Angelo Cataldi of WIP

More than 24 hours have passed since Sunday afternoon’s vomit-inducing loss to the Mets, and still, questions linger over why Jonathan Papelbon could not answer the bell and do what the Phillies brought him here (for a price of $50 million) to do -- roll himself out of the bullpen and nail down leads.

Oh, we know what manager Ryne Sandberg said. After some postgame bobbing and weaving, Sandberg came clean and said Papelbon was unable to pitch because of body soreness (see story).

Close to an hour after Sandberg spoke, Papelbon emerged from the athletic trainer’s room at Citi Field. He walked rigidly into the clubhouse, like an icicle in pain. It appeared as if he’d just come out of the whirlpool, maybe an ice bath.

The buses were idling outside the stadium and the nearly empty clubhouse was about to close so reporters only had time for a quick explanation from Papelbon as to why he ruled himself unavailable for work.

He confirmed what Sandberg said.

He was sore.

“Everything,” Papelbon said. “Back. Legs. You know, the daily grind of the season.”

So what caused this soreness?

“It’s a product of the last couple of games, getting up in the bullpen in a tie game a bunch of times the other night,” he said. “It is what it is.”

Papelbon’s definition of “a bunch” stinks.

A bunch was what Clint Hurdle did with Brad Lidge in the 2008 All-Star Game. Lidge practically threw a complete game with all his ups and downs -- six of them -- that night.

We went through the replays of the TV broadcast. Papelbon, who did not pitch Wednesday or Thursday, warmed up twice before coming into Friday night’s game and once before coming into Saturday night’s game.

Now, we know closers hate it when managers get them up and down and don’t bring them into a game. (They have a graphic expression for the practice, but for the sake of good taste we won’t use it here, though you’re free to have at it in the Wild West that is the comments section.) Sometimes, however, getting a closer up multiple times is unavoidable in games as close as the ones the Phillies played on Friday and Saturday night. The Phils went 11 innings in winning, 3-2, on Friday night and rallied for the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth inning in Saturday night’s win.

Getting up twice in a close game is not usual, but Papelbon seemed to want the world to know it caused him some distress when he offered that he was up “a bunch” of times even though it really wasn’t a bunch.

When Papelbon got in those games, he pitched quite well. So well that he notched his 10th and 11th straight saves. So well that he threw a total of just 21 pitches, 112 fewer than Cole Hamels threw in his woulda-coulda-shoulda 100th win on Sunday, less than half as many as Jake Diekman and Mike Adams threw on Friday and Saturday.

Papelbon is a tough guy. He actually has a reputation for taking the ball. He did so many times last season with a bad hip. We don’t doubt he wasn’t feeling right on Sunday. But to hang it on 21 pitches and a few ups and downs in the bullpen? Ferris Bueller had a better excuse for his day off.

Papelbon’s mentioning of ups and downs could be interpreted as criticism of the Phillies’ dugout braintrust, but, again, the ups and downs hardly seemed extreme. One has to at least consider that Papelbon might have been voicing some objection to his handling because he has a history of employing thinly veiled criticism. He has questioned the defensive alignments employed by his managers after a pair of losses this season and last, most recently after his ugly blown save in Texas during the first week of the season.

If Papelbon was employing some subtle criticism of the people who give him his marching orders, there was nothing subtle about the comments Sandberg made to Angelo Cataldi during his regular spot on WIP Monday morning.

Sandberg is a product of the pop-an-Advil-and-play era. After sleeping on that horrible loss Sunday, Sandberg didn’t sound all that pleased when he said, “This generation has a hard time playing with some soreness.”

Sandberg did the right thing not using Papelbon on Sunday. If a 33-year-old adult says he feels lousy and can’t work, the boss has to take his word or risk poor performance. Still, the guess here is that Sandberg was fuming about not having his closer for that game. He is just so reserved and close-to-the-vest that he’d never admit it to a reporter moments after a game.

There might be a few other people who were fuming. We hear so much about the Phillies being an old team. But those old guys -- Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Marlon Byrd -- answered the bell Sunday afternoon. And you don’t think Utley was sore? He’s sore every day.

There has to be a better answer for Papelbon’s soreness than his definition of a bunch of ups and downs. He says he’s not hurt, says he’ll be ready Tuesday, but who really knows until he pitches again.

In the meantime, the Phillies are left to stew in the juices of a loss that was completely avoidable, and fans are left to wonder who will step up and close the game the next time the team is poised for a three-game sweep.

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