The Phillies celebrate their 5-4 win over the Braves on Saturday after Jimmy Rollins' diving play capped off the victory. (AP)
ATLANTA -- Jonathan Papelbon looked a little like Roy Halladay as he bobbed and weaved his way through the ninth inning with a flaccid fastball and a bag full of off-speed trickery Saturday night.
Papelbon eventually put away the Atlanta Braves thanks to Jimmy Rollins, who laid out and made one of the best plays of the season to help the Phillies hang on for a 5-4 win in Game No. 161 (see Instant Replay).
“Heck of a play,” manager Ryne Sandberg said. “Heck of a play. Outstanding.
“Knowing Jimmy, he probably wanted to get the game over with there. He probably didn’t want to go into overtime. That was a heck of a play.”
Sandberg laughed as he said that.
There was no laughing at Papelbon’s locker. He was at his churlish best after allowing three runs in the ninth. But he managed to tip his cap to Rollins for saving his bacon.
“Pretty good,” the prickly closer said. “Especially in that situation. Pretty good effort.”
Pretty good effort indeed. And pretty good execution.
Cesar Hernandez and Rollins, the Phils’ No. 1 and 2 hitters in the penultimate game of the season, combined for six hits and four runs as the Phils took a 5-1 lead into the ninth inning.
In a non-save situation, Papelbon came into the four-run game. He allowed a pair of one-out singles before Justin Upton smacked a hanging breaking ball into the seats for a three-run homer. Papelbon then allowed another hit and a walk to bring .322-hitting Chris Johnson to the plate.
With the count 1-2, Johnson stroked a 90-mph fastball on the ground toward left field. Rollins got a good jump on the ball and made a diving play on the edge of the outfield grass. Rollins sprang to his feet and threw a one-hop strike across the diamond to get Johnson for the final out of the game.
Rollins had a fascinating take on the play. He said he decided to throw to first base only after seeing the third base coach hold Freddie Freeman. If the third base coach had waved Freeman, Rollins said he would have thrown to third to try to catch him scampering back to the bag.
“Once the third base coach stopped the runner, I literally thought I might as well throw it to first,” Rollins said. “I wanted to make sure I didn’t throw it away so I bounced it.”
Even though the Phils long ago fell out of the race, it was a nice win for them to get heading into the final day of the season.
But a deeper look at the game reveals a concern for 2014. Papelbon, who turns 33 in November, is not the gas-throwing ninth-inning demon he was in Boston. His best fastball is now about 92 mph, down from 94-plus in his heyday. He throws more off-speed stuff. He blew seven saves this season, most of them when the team was trying to stay in the race around mid-season. His strikeout rate is a career-low 8.3 per nine innings, down from 12.2 in 2011, his last season in Boston. The Phils gave him a four-year, $50 million deal that offseason.
Having thrown 32 pitches Saturday night, Papelbon will likely get Sunday off, meaning he won’t have a chance Sunday to reach 30 saves for an eighth straight season.
Phillies management was quite open to trading Papelbon in July, but there were no takers. The club would be open to moving him this winter, but no one is going to take the $26 million he is owed the next two seasons. So Papelbon is likely back next season. The Phils would be wise to have arms that can close in reserve, but the job will be Papelbon’s until he loses it.
Sandberg was asked whether he believed Papelbon could still be a shutdown closer.
His answer did not exactly drip with optimism.
“Well, he’s our guy right now,” Sandberg said. “I see him getting some rest and back to throwing 94. I think that’s what he needs.”
Papelbon has pitched just 61 2/3 innings this season, his lowest since 2007. He said he was unaware of any velocity drop. He said his hip, which bothered him earlier in the season, was fine. His said his use of off-speed pitches was based on game situations.
Asked to assess his season, Papelbon was blunt.
“It’s a failure because we didn’t get to the playoffs and try to win the World Series,” he said. “It doesn’t even matter what I do.”
On Friday night, Papelbon’s buddy Cliff Lee mentioned that the club could use some more offense next season. (Cliff is right.)
Papelbon didn’t want to get into what he believed the team needed to return to the postseason in 2014.
“My opinion doesn’t matter in the equation,” he said. “I don’t think there’s one thing. You can’t point your finger at one guy or one thing. Everybody is in this together.”
Papelbon created a stir in July when, in the midst of the losing streak that knocked the Phillies from contention, he said he “didn’t come here for this.” The comment did not sit well with management and some teammates because Papelbon’s mid-season struggles contributed to the losing.
The pitcher was asked after Saturday night’s game whether he was happy to be with the Phillies.
“Yeah,” he sniffed. “I’m happy to be in a uniform playing baseball. It’s not fun to lose, though.”
Papelbon didn’t lose Saturday night. He can thank Jimmy Rollins for that.