Papelbon coughs up 4-3 loss to Rangers

Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo tries to slide under the tag by Phillies third baseman Cody Asche, but is out during a first-inning rundown. AP
Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo tries to slide under the tag by Phillies third baseman Cody Asche, but is out during a first-inning rundown. AP
Posted: April 04, 2014

ARLINGTON, Texas - The ball skipped past Chase Utley, drawn in because the tying run stood on third base, and Jonathan Papelbon raised his arms in disgust. The richest closer in baseball blew his first save opportunity of 2014, and with it the chance at a season-opening series victory vanished.

Minutes after a 4-3 loss to the Rangers on Wednesday night, Papelbon sat with his left leg crossed over his right and stared into his empty locker. Pitching coach Bob McClure consoled him.

"It's just one of those weird innings, man," Papelbon said.

He inherited a two-run lead. It disintegrated because Papelbon failed to command any of his 21 pitches. The game ended on a bases-loaded walk, the first issued by Papelbon in eight years.

The $50 million closer stared skyward and abandoned the field as Texas once again danced on the infield. It was a complete meltdown. Papelbon faced seven batters. Six reached base.

Until Papelbon imploded, Kyle Kendrick and Mario Hollands quelled a powerful Rangers lineup. Ryan Howard's two-run blast in the third inning appeared to provide enough support.

But, later, Papelbon was perturbed at his teammates' defensive alignment. He said McClure visited the mound and said, "OK, let's get a ground ball." Bench coach Larry Bowa signaled for "three" depth, which meant the priority for the infielders was eliminating the runner at third on a grounder, but a double play was still possible because the infield was not completely brought in.

Leonys Martin singled past Utley to tie the game. The next two Rangers walked.

"Obviously I don't know whether that's called for the bench or called from the middle infielders, but less than two outs I'm thinking ground ball and I'm thinking let's get this double play and go home," Papelbon said. "Obviously I'm not going to second-guess my teammates or my coach."

His manager, Ryne Sandberg, said Papelbon was too erratic. He threw his fastball at an average velocity of 91.6 m.p.h., according to PITCHf/x data, which is a far cry from the 93.8 m.p.h. he averaged in 2012.

"He was just up in the zone," Sandberg said. "He featured a lot of fastballs. They just happened to be up. Even an 0-2 fastball shoulder-high was a hittable pitch."

This season commenced with questions about Papelbon because of his diminished velocity in 2013. He missed fewer bats and relied more on contact. His 2.92 ERA still demonstrated competency, but it was dependent on more luck.

A disaster like Wednesday's will only intensify the concerns.

The stage was set for an uplifting series victory, especially after Hollands secured redemption in the eighth. He was one of the offending pitchers Tuesday.

Manager Ryne Sandberg was without his three most trusted relievers - Antonio Bastardo, Jake Diekman and B.J. Rosenberg - and turned to Hollands when a similar situation unfolded Wednesday. Hollands, who walked two in his major-league debut, entered just as he did Tuesday to face Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, and Prince Fielder.

He retired the side on 10 pitches. Hollands, the 25-year-old lefty who was unprotected in last winter's Rule 5 draft and emerged as the spring's surprise, rewarded his manager's faith. There was no celebration; he removed his hat and wiped the Texas sweat from his forehead.

Kendrick did the heavy lifting. He lived on the inside corner against the Rangers' many talented lefthanded bats by using a front-hip sinker. That allowed Kendrick to control the night.

The Phillies faced a lefthanded pitcher for the second straight day and, yet again, Sandberg adjusted his lineup. This time, he bumped Howard to his standard cleanup spot because Texas starter Robbie Ross was better against righthanded batters than lefties in his career.

Ross threw Howard a 1-1 slider at the knees. The slugger was not fooled. Ross flinched and raised his glove in defense when Howard swung in the third. The ball struck a "WELCOME PRINCE" sign and landed an estimated 411 feet away. It was the kind of crack that conjured Howard memories of old, the swing that instills confidence in a season's nascent moments.

Then Papelbon arrived in the ninth, and everything else was rendered moot.


mgelb@phillynews.com

@magelb www.inquirer.com/

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