Papelbon speaks: A not-so-smart move

Jonathan Papelbon was frustrated with himself and his Phillies teammates after blowing a save Wednesday night.
Jonathan Papelbon was frustrated with himself and his Phillies teammates after blowing a save Wednesday night. (BRIAN GARFINKEL / Getty)
Posted: June 22, 2013

A few weeks ago, Jonathan Papelbon sat in the dugout at Fenway Park and held court with the Boston media that had covered him for seven years.

The story line was obvious, but Papelbon wasn't playing along. It was fun to be back in Fenway, he'd loved playing in Boston, but he hadn't spent a lot of time pondering what might have been had he stayed.

"I don't think what-if a whole lot," Papelbon said. "I'm really not that kind of person. I don't stop and think. My role, if I'm out there thinking, I'm going to lose. I've taken that into my life. I really don't think about too many things."

Those words came to mind after listening to Papelbon's comments Wednesday night. He had just blown a save. The fateful ninth inning, when Washington tied the game, had turned on a ground ball that Ryan Howard couldn't handle. Papelbon covered first but couldn't catch a low throw from second baseman Freddy Galvis.

"I was thinking on a 3-1 count our infield would be back," Papelbon told reporters after the 6-2, 11-inning loss. "I was expecting to turn around and run to first base and catch an underhand throw."

Howard was even with the first-base bag on the play, likely because he thought Washington's Denard Span might bunt. Papelbon's critique continued, encompassing not just that play but what he seemed to see as a chronic problem.

"This is a game of fundamentals, and we've got to do fundamentals right and keep grinding," he said. "Everything from the pitchers making the correct pitches to pitchers backing up the right bases to the outfield moving on counts to the infield moving on counts. Everything that goes into every pre-pitch. We've got to do better.

"I'm not pointing fingers at anyone. It's a team effort here. . . . I'm seeing some of the same mistakes. I think for us, we have to make the fundamental plays we're supposed to make."

This is where the not-thinking part comes in. Papelbon wouldn't deliberately criticize manager Charlie Manuel, who is ultimately responsible for demanding sound fundamental play. But his comments surely will be interpreted that way by the vocal percentage of fans who would like to see Manuel gone.

Here's the complication, though. Most of those fans want Manuel replaced by Ryne Sandberg. This is a dynamic that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. created by bringing Sandberg to the big-league staff. It is exacerbated by two things: the team's sub-.500 record and Manuel's lame-duck contract status.

But guess who is responsible for coaching and placing infielders? That would be Sandberg, the Hall of Fame second baseman. So you can't use Papelbon's words as an indictment of Manuel without casting equal blame on Sandberg.

Coupled with some dubious decisions as a third-base coach, it is tough to point to anything concrete that suggests Sandberg would immediately right this foundering ship.

That isn't to say Sandberg won't be a very good major-league manager, only that there's scant foundation for the belief he will be an instant improvement over the guy with a .557 winning percentage and a World Series ring. The drumbeat to replace Manuel has more to do with the need to pin the blame on somebody.

These last few days - two blown saves and a rumination on baseball fundamentals - may have some other unintended consequences. If Amaro is to try to move Papelbon before the trade deadline, he needs the closer's value to remain as high as possible.

You have to think it was higher a few days ago, when Papelbon was perfect in save opportunities and before he spoke up. A contender looking to add a final piece may be wary of a guy who could disrupt clubhouse chemistry. Remember, Papelbon already wears a mark from being part of the notorious 2011 Red Sox.

Would a GM pass up an elite closer because of a few comments and a fading association with a toxic clubhouse? Probably not. But he just might play up those concerns, along with Papelbon's enormous contract, to reduce Amaro's asking price by a prospect or two.

None of that was on Papelbon's mind Wednesday. He was frustrated after blowing a save when a simple groundout might have meant a victory. He didn't consider how his words might resonate.

That would require pesky thinking, and who has time for that?


Contact Phil Sheridan at psheridan@phillynews.com. Follow @Sheridanscribe on Twitter.

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