Phillies stave off furious Braves rally in ninth
Rollins' great play bails out Papelbon; six pitchers combine for win
ATLANTA -- The Phillies have plenty of holes to fill this offseason, but closer is not one of them.
They paid Jonathan Papelbon $50 million to do that job.
He nearly blew a four-run lead Saturday night in a 5-4 victory over the Braves at Turner Field.
Anybody can have a bad night and Papelbon hung his night on a hanging breaking ball to Braves right fielder Justin Upton, who hit a three-run home run. But there are reasons to be concerned about their high-priced closer. Papelbon, who is owed $26 million over the next two seasons, has blown seven of 36 save opportunities this year. His 80.6 save completion percentage ranks 27th out of 30 pitchers with 20 or more chances. His once intimidating fastball has averaged just 92.1 mph, 1.7 mph less than last season and 2.7 mph less than his final season with the Red Sox in 2011.
A surly Papelbon sat in a far corner of the Phillies clubhouse afterward, carrying a blank look on his face and insisting he is not worried about any of this.
"I guess, if you guys think I'm not throwing hard enough," he said when asked if he thinks his velocity can come back next season. "I don't know, maybe. Maybe it will. I don't know. I don't think think [velocity] really matters in this game. It's velocity at the plate, life at the plate. It's not how hard it comes out of your hand. It's what it does near the plate."
But Papelbon is striking out only 8.3 batters per nine innings this season, which is the lowest mark of his career. He averaged 10 or more strikeouts per nine innings over each of the previous six seasons.
Papelbon had a hip issue earlier this season, but he downplayed its effect then and he downplayed it again Saturday. But Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said it is something Papelbon has been working on, and he said hopefully when his closer is healthy he can starting throwing fastballs back in the 93-94 mph range.
Asked if Papelbon can be a shutdown closer if he is throwing in the 91-92 mph range, Sandberg said, "Well, he's our guy right now for that. I see him getting some rest and getting back to throwing 94. I think that's what he needs."
The Phillies are more than willing to trade Papelbon in the offseason, but they might have trouble finding takers. They had virtually no interest in him before the July 31 Trade Deadline because he is owed not only $26 million over the next two seasons, but potentially $13 million more in 2016 based on a club option.
Papelbon was very critical of the team in July, saying changes needed to be made from top to bottom to improve. Asked Saturday where he thinks this team is headed, he said, "We're headed to go play golf."
His former team won the American League East this season after losing 93 games last season. Maybe it could happen to the Phillies in 2014.
"Sure, but you saw what they did over there," he said.
The Red Sox cleaned house.
Is Papelbon happy in Philadelphia? It is hard to tell.
"Yeah, I mean, I'm happy to be in a uniform, playing baseball," he said. "But it's not fun to lose, though."
And what does he think about his season?
"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."
Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins made an incredible play to bail out Papelbon in the ninth, going deep into the hole to throw out Chris Johnson to end the game.
"He has come on strong to finish the season," Sandberg said about Rollins. "The whole month he has shown improvement. He is doing some things that were asked to better his game and he's getting improvement with that. That's a good thing. Knowing him, he probably wanted to get the game over with there."
"He probably didn't want to go overtime," he said. "That was a heck of a play."
Rookie Cameron Rupp's two-out single scored two runs in the first inning to hand the Phillies a quick 2-0 lead. Rookie right-hander Ethan Martin allowed one run in three innings, but a collection of young relievers threw a combined five scoreless innings until Papelbon took the mound in the ninth. Luis Garcia earned the win with two hitless innings and three strikeouts.