PHILADELPHIA — Jonathan Papelbon has been through this rodeo before. He’s been saving games — and blowing saves — for 11 years now. So don’t expect him to get too caught up with what happened Monday night in his old stomping grounds.
Though it certainly helped that his Nationals teammates picked him up during a wild, 8-7, 11-inning victory over the Phillies.
“I’ve done that plenty of times in my career,” Papelbon said. “I’m very familiar with that situation. But at the end of the day, you play to win the game. And regardless of how it unfolds, you win the game it’s a good day at the office.”
Doug Fister, on the other hand, had never been through this scenario before, at least not in the big leagues. The veteran right-hander did notch four saves in 2006 for the Class A Everett AquaSox. That probably didn’t quite prepare him for the bottom of the 11th inning at Citizens Bank Park, needing to hold the Phillies scoreless to preserve his team’s win despite the fact he hadn’t appeared in any game in 13 days.
“It’s nice to get in there and pitch,” Fister said. “It’s one of those things when your name is called, three outs are three outs, no matter what the score is.”
This is where the Nationals’ season now resides, with Papelbon blowing a save in the bottom of the 10th, then Fister needing to record a save in the bottom of the 11th to ensure his team didn’t fall 10 1/2 games behind the Mets in an NL East race that is all but mathematically over.
Strange times, indeed.
The Nationals acquired Papelbon from the Phillies six weeks ago specifically to close out games like this. Things just never went according to plan. Papelbon got only six save opportunities during those six weeks, the Nats unable to consistently get to the ninth inning with a lead.
It was only fitting, though, that the veteran closer would find himself on the mound for this one, his first game back in Philadelphia since the trade, greeted as you might expect from a small but emotional crowd of 15,402. Papelbon, who earlier in the afternoon didn’t mince words when saying he didn’t believe the Phillies as an organization were trying to win, was immediately greeted by ex-teammate Freddy Galvis, who launched a hanging split-finger fastball over the right-field wall for a game-tying homer.
It not only was Papelbon’s first blown save as a National, but his first blown save as anything this season, actually his first blown save in exactly one calendar year.
“Really? I don’t keep track of any of that,” he said when informed of that factoid.
Such is the required mentality of the closer, who has to possess the ability to erase all previous memories, no matter good or bad. Papelbon takes particular pride in that.
“I’ve been through a lot in my career,” he said. “I’ve had many things come up, adversity overcome. I’ve been in just about every situation you can imagine. Even tonight, I’ve been through that situation so many times before. It is what it is. When I take the mound, you’re talking to a different individual than you are right now. Two different people.”
Fister has no closer experience to rely on. He barely has any relief experience, having only been moved to the bullpen last month when rookie Joe Ross out-pitched him to earn the final spot in the Nationals’ rotation.
The veteran right-hander has tried to adjust along the way, seeking advice from teammates. But it has been a strange existence, never knowing when he might be asked to pitch, or for how long.
“I know I’m out there in the bullpen and I’m there as a tool for them,” he said. “But it is rough sitting there for a long time and not getting in a game. But when it comes down to it, when your name’s called you’ve got to be ready. That’s kind of where we were tonight.”
The Nationals had already used six different relievers before the 11th inning, leaving manager Matt Williams with few conventional options at that point. In the end, Williams decided to go with Fister, even if he never had been used to close out a game.
“We’ve got to go to Doug there,” Williams said. “He’s the one with the most experience. And he did a nice job for us.”
Fister did get into some quick trouble, walking Cameron Rupp to lead off the inning. But he bounced right back to strike out both Andres Blanco and Odubel Herrera before getting Galvis to fly out to left and end the game.
“Honestly, I was approaching it the same way as I do a start,” he said. “I was literally telling myself: ‘One pitch at a time.'”
When he returned to the clubhouse, Fister was greeted by teammates (who gave him a beer shower) and clubhouse manager Mike Wallace (who gave him the ball used to record his first career save).
“Everybody was happy for him,” left fielder Jayson Werth said. “He got a nice beer shower when he got in here. I don’t even think he’s pitched in maybe two weeks, or something like that. Everybody’s happy for him. He’s a great guy, and he’s a big part of this club. So it was good to see.”