Red Sox

McAdam: Papelbon dominant since spring scare

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McAdam: Papelbon dominant since spring scare

By Sean McAdam
CSNNE.com Red Sox Insider Follow @sean_mcadam
MINNEAPOLIS -- It seems almost impossible now, but only a few months ago, there was legitimate concern about Jonathan Papelbon.

The Red Sox' closer was coming off a season in which he blew a career-high eight saves and posted the highest ERA since reaching the major leagues.

Last season, every indicator available was trending the wrong way -- walks and hits were up; the number of saves was down. And after a strong start to the Grapefruit League season, Papelbon's mechanics seemed to be a mess, forcing him to pitch in minor-league games to streamline his delivery.

But with just under a third of the season remaining, those fears now seem laughable.

Tuesday night, Papelbon posted his 26th save of the season, and his 21st save in a row, a new career-best streak. A closer look reveals his strikeout-to-walk ratio to be an otherworldly 8-to-1.

For the first time since 2008, his WHIP is below 1.00 at 0.98.

And as he demonstrated Tuesday night when he got three outs on just seven pitches to secure the Red Sox' 4-3 win over the Minnesota Twins, he seems to be peaking just as the Red Sox' season heads down the stretch.

"I feel like I'm hitting my stride,'' said Papelbon. "After last year, I had to make my adjustment this year. I think experience on all levels has made this a better season -- knowing when tohit the gas, when to hit the brake.''

Papelbon credits a new off-field regimen, developed with strength-and-conditioning coach Dave Page, for maintaining his stamina.

And on the mound, there are differences, too. Papelbon has locked into his delivery and has been able to repeat it consistently.

There was no better evidence of that than Tuesday, when pitching for the third straight night, Papelbon seemed to hit 95 mph almost effortlessly.

"I felt strong,'' said Papelbon after turning back the Twins. "The ball was coming out of my hand good. I'm just trying to repeat my daily routine, my delivery, on a daily basis.

"I know I'm 30 years old right now, but I feel stronger than I ever have in seven seasons of big-league baseball.''

That is surely good news for the Red Sox, who hope that Papelbon can be the kind of dominant late-inning force of nature that he was in 2007, when the Sox last won the World Series.

"He's pumping strikes and using all of his pitches,'' said Terry Francona. "He's taken care of himself and he's throwing the ball better now than he was earlier in the season. That's a great sign.''

And while Papelbon seemed to alternate last year between throwing his fastball too frequently and relying on his secondary pitches, this season, his approach has been remarkably simple.

He's challenging hitters with his fastball -- and succeeding much of the time, as his 11.8 strikeouts-per-nine-inning ratio suggests.

"I'm pitching aggressive this year, for sure,'' said Papelbon. "But I also think that when I fall behind and it's 2-and-0, a hitter's count, I can still throw my fastball and get outs with it. That's a huge part of pitching.''

Moreover, because Papelbon's mechanics are purer and streamlined, the late action on his fastball is better.

Still uncertain, of course, is Papelbon's future. He's eligible for free agency after this season and his goal of setting the salary standard for closers is drawing closer.

If Papelbon is seeking a multi-year commitment of four years, he may well be pitching his final few months with the Red Sox, who are known to be wary of giving long-term deals to closers with plenty of high-stress innings.

If, on the other hand, Papelbon can be satisfied with a shorter deal, something still can be worked out.

Either way, that's for December.

For now, the focus is on the present and October. If the Red Sox could push a fast forward button and have Papelbon throw in the post-season the way he's throwing currently, they surely would.

Sean McAdam can be reached at smcadam@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Sean on Twitter at http:twitter.comsean_mcadam

NLCS: Cubs avoid sweep, top Dodgers 3-2 to cut series deficit to 3-1

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NLCS: Cubs avoid sweep, top Dodgers 3-2 to cut series deficit to 3-1

CHICAGO - Javier Baez snapped an 0-for-20 skid with two home runs, Wade Davis hung on for a six-out save and the Chicago Cubs avoided a sweep, holding off the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-2 Wednesday night in Game 4 of the NL Championship Series.

Jake Arrieta pitched three-hit ball into the seventh inning to held the defending World Series champion Cubs close their deficit to 3-1. Manager Joe Maddon got ejected for the second time in this series in the eighth, and a packed Wrigley Field crowd watched Davis get Cody Bellinger to ground into a game-ending double play.

Maddon was heavily criticized for not using Davis during a 4-1 loss in Game 2. This time, the Cubs closer threw 48 pitches to finish the job.

Willson Contreras also homered for the Cubs. Bellinger and Justin Turner connected for the Dodgers, who had won a team-record six straight playoff games.

Game 5 is Thursday, with Jose Quintana pitching for Chicago against Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw.

Baez hit solo drives in the second and fifth after going hitless in his first 20 playoff at-bats. Contreras added a long homer against Alex Wood.

Davis entered with a 3-1 lead in the eighth. He gave up a leadoff homer to Turner, who went 2 for 2 and drew two walks.

Maddon became incensed that a swinging strike three against Curtis Granderson was ruled a foul after the umpires discussed the play. Maddon got tossed, and Granderson struck out swinging at the next pitch.

And after walking Yasmani Grandal to put runners on first and second, Davis struck out Chase Utley, who is hitless in his last 24 postseason at-bats.

All seven of Chicago's runs in this series have come on homers. And long drives in the second by Contreras and Baez made it 2-0.

Contreras' homer banged off the left-field videoboard and Baez's landed beyond the left-field bleachers on Waveland Avenue.

Bellinger cut it to 2-1 with his drive to right in the third. But Baez got the lead back up to two with a shot to the left-field bleachers in the fifth, the raucous crowd chanting "Javy! Javy!" for the flashy young star who was co-MVP of the NLCS last year.

No Cubs player had hit two in a playoff game since Alex Gonzalez went deep twice in Game 2 of the 2003 NLCS against Miami.

Arrieta exited with runners on first and second in the seventh after walking Chris Taylor on a 3-2 pitch. He tipped his hat as fans gave him a standing ovation, a fitting show of appreciation for a pitcher with an expiring contract.

Arrieta turns 32 in March and figures to land a huge deal in free agency. The trade that brought him from Baltimore helped fuel Chicago's rise, with the right-hander capturing the 2015 NL Cy Young Award and contributing to last year's drought-busting championship run.

Limited by a right hamstring injury in the final month of the season, he threw 111 pitches. Brian Duensing retired Bellinger on a fly to end the seventh.

Turner made it a one-run game with his homer off the left-field videoboard against Davis in the eighth.

A career-high 16-game winner, Wood gave up three runs and four hits in 42/3 innings.

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ALCS: Tanaka, Yankees top Keuchel, Astros 5-0 for 3-2 lead

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ALCS: Tanaka, Yankees top Keuchel, Astros 5-0 for 3-2 lead

NEW YORK - Masahiro Tanaka pitched seven innings of three-hit ball and the New York Yankees finally solved Houston Astros nemesis Dallas Keuchel, beating the ace lefty 5-0 on Wednesday for a 3-2 lead in the AL Championship Series.

Gary Sanchez hit an RBI single off Keuchel and later homered to help the wild-card Yankees win for the third straight day at home and move within one victory of their first trip to the World Series since 2009.

The teams head back to Houston for Game 6 on Friday night, when Justin Verlander and the reeling Astros will try to regain their footing following an off day and force a decisive Game 7. Luis Severino is scheduled to start for New York.

Just days ago, Houston was up two games to none and appeared to be closing in on its second World Series appearance. But the Astros, like defending AL champion Cleveland before them, have been unable to put away these poised Yankees, who improved to 6-0 at home in this postseason in front of their cheering, chanting fans.

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