Papelbon taking on leadership role in 'pen
After first losing season, veteran closer looks to step up both on and off field
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Finding a losing season that Jonathan Papelbon endured before 2013 is a difficult proposition.
It wasn't any of his first eight Major League seasons, nor was it one of his three college seasons at Mississippi State.
Papelbon is at a loss. He can't name a losing season before his Phillies had a record of 73-89 and finished in fourth place in the National League East last year.
After seven winning seasons with the Red Sox that included a 2007 World Series championship, Papelbon signed a four-year, $50 million contract with the Phillies on Nov. 14, 2011. He promptly experienced his first non-winning season -- one with 38 saves -- as the Phillies finished 81-81.
Then came last season's downturn. According to Papelbon, most of the Phillies' struggles could be attributed to clubhouse issues spurred on by injuries to key veterans.
"I think since I've been here we hadn't had quite the clubhouse that we've wanted," he said. "Whether it be guys that have been hurt, we haven't had guys on the field all the time and I think that affects leadership, that affects camaraderie. I think it's a lot of different things."
Losing forced Papelbon to rethink the way he went about the game. After a season in which he said he "hadn't seen any leadership," the right-hander decided to make a change.
"You've just got to reassess the situation, man," he said. "Just try to do your best to reorganize your thoughts and refocus your thoughts and try to do everything you can to be a part of the winning equation."
That equation started with Papelbon stepping into a leadership role. A year ago, he became the eighth pitcher in MLB history to earn at least 25 saves in eight consecutive seasons. Papelbon tied his career high with five victories.
But he had seven blown saves, the most since 2010, with six of them taking place with two outs in the inning. And for the first time in Papelbon's career, he had three consecutive blown saves -- from June 19 through June 24.
As the most decorated reliever in the Phillies' bullpen, he has taken it upon himself to create the leadership he didn't see last year, starting with the relief corps.
"I feel like my area of expertise is the bullpen," he said. "I'm trying to do everything I can to make sure that the bullpen goes in the right direction."
Righting the Philadelphia bullpen will be no easy task. Papelbon's 2013 total of 29 saves was the fewest in a complete Major League season. Phillies relievers compiled an ERA of 4.19 last year, fourth-worst in the Major Leagues.
Phillies right-hander B.J. Rosenberg said Papelbon's increased leadership role has already shown benefits both on and off the mound.
"I've said all along, he's been huge for me," Rosenberg said. "Not only did he teach me the split when I first got called up, but … I've just felt comfortable going to him."
Rosenberg, entering his third season in the Major Leagues, said he has seen a difference in a clubhouse that lacked leaders when he first arrived.
"Guys are just kind of being more open," he said. "I feel in the past, maybe it's just because guys were quiet or something like that, or maybe they didn't really have that in them. I feel like, for the most part, guys are ... a little more talking to each other, more picking guys up and stuff like that."
A year removed from Papelbon's first losing season in at least 11 years, he forced himself to step up as a leader and mentor. It's a change that has already paid dividends.
"It's a lot better this year," he said.
Alden Woods is a journalism student at Indiana University. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.