Drafted out of Mississippi State University by the Boston Red Sox in the fourth round of the 2003 MLB Draft, Jonathan Papelbon made 677 major league appearances out of the bullpen over twelve major league seasons without landing on the DL.
This afternoon, however, the Washington Nationals placed the 35-year-old right-hander on the Disabled List with a strain of the right intercostal muscle.
After the official announcement from the team, Nats' skipper Dusty Baker met with reporters to discuss the details of the injury and the decision to place Papelbon on the DL for the first time in his career.
"He hurt himself warming up," Baker told reporters. "He said he felt it when he was warming up two days ago to come in the game. But guys are always stretching and stuff and then I had my eyes on him and a couple of other guys had some eyes on him when he was really stretching in the dugout after the top of the ninth.
"We didn't think anything of it but then when he came in the next day all crooked and he couldn't straighten out, you know something was wrong. Pap is a guy that has a high tolerance for pain and certainly this guy is one of the tough guys and we just thought that it would be better not to inject it, not to -- because you can really tear it up and he could be out for a long period of time and so use this time to get his strength back and it will be like -- when he comes back hopefully it will be almost like trading for a new player because he'll be strong."
A new, improved Papelbon would be a welcome addition to the bullpen, because even though he's converted 16 of 18 save opportunities so far this season and 23 of 27 since he was acquired from the Philadelphia Phillies last July, he's struggled some, giving up hard contact and failing to generate the swings and misses he has throughout his career.
After giving up a go-ahead home run in Sunday's game, before the Nationals rallied for a walk-off win, Papelbon has a a 3.28 ERA, a 3.60 FIP, eight walks (2.92 BB/9) and 19 Ks (6.93 K/9) in 24 ⅔ IP this season.
Baker said it took some convincing to get Papelbon to accept the idea of going on the DL.
"We had to talk him into it, but when you're crooked, something's wrong. And then we discussed it and talked about it and he realized that he'd be putting more pressure on the rest of the bullpen waiting on him if it was three days, four or five days, because [Shawn] Kelley, he pitched 1 ⅔ yesterday, so we don't know if he's available today, then that puts pressure on everybody else and God forbid if Gio [Gonzalez] doesn't go deep into the game today and that puts pressure on them today and tomorrow and the next day and we still have eight more games before an off day.
"As much as he didn't want to do it, he said he didn't want to put pressure on his compadres in the bullpen."
If Papelbon injured himself before his appearance on Sunday, a reporter asked, was it a good idea for him to charge onto the field and take part in the Nats' exuberant celebration of Jayson Werth's walk-off winner against the Phillies?
"No, it's not wise," Baker acknowledged, "but if you feel something, that doesn't mean that you're hurt. If you feel something -- how do you not celebrate? That was probably one of the most enjoyable games of the year. No it probably wasn't wise, but how often do we do unwise things?"
Baker didn't have a timetable for the closer's return, saying only, "... it's 15 days no matter what and we'd rather catch it now than if it got worse."
As for who closes while Papelbon's out? Baker said he didn't have an answer to that question just yet.
"I don't know yet," he said. "That's the same question you guys asked me -- How are we going to get our bullpen leaving Spring Training and what roles our guys are going to have?
"This is similar, except we have a little more background on left/right, who can go consecutive days, who's better with runners inherited, who's better with first-inning efficiency, all this goes into the equation, so we'll just have to -- [Pitching coach] Mike [Maddux] and I will put our heads together before the game and try to play out as many scenarios as you can. What if this guy's up? What if this guy's up? Are they going to pinch hit for this guy or would it be with a righty, a lefty?
"You've just got to figure that out and some of it is as we go and as the scoreboard dictates what we do."
When Kelley is available again, will he take over in the ninth-inning role?
Baker was asked if he thought the veteran reliever, signed to a three-year deal this winter, had the makeup for closing?
Will you not know until he gets a chance to fill the closer's role?
"I don't know," Baker said. "That's a very good question. It's just that you'd have thought that if he had closer makeup or if he was going to be a closer it would have been before he got to his fourth or fifth team, No. 1 and No. 2, we have to really be guarded, because this guy, he had Tommy John in high school and then he had another Tommy John after, so we're very cautious of how he feels, I mean we ask him every day. It's no secret, he went 1 ⅔ yesterday, so he's probably not available today, even if he wanted."