It hurts to say this, but it has become painfully true: Jonathan Papelbon has lost it.
I'm not talking about his stuff. I'm not talking about his mid-90s fastball, his sometimes-effective splitter or his getting-better slider. I'm talking about what makes Papelbon actually go. He's lost it. And he needs to get it back.
Papelbon entered Wednesday's game against the Rockies with the Red Sox holding on to a 6-5 lead. Somehow. Facing Rockies ace Ubaldo Jimenez, certainly there weren't many Sox fans that expected Boston to have any sort of lead late in the game. But the Red Sox had just that, and handed it over to Papelbon to nail down the save.
It wasn't even close.
Papelbon served up a solo shot to Ian Stewart to tie the game and then let Jason Giambi hit a two-run version of his own to win the game. Game over. Rockies win, Red Sox lose and Papelbon implodes.
Papelbon walked off the mound with his head down as the Rockies celebrated just a few feet away from him. Red Sox fans have seen this far too many times in the last year.
Who is this guy that gave up two home runs Wednesday night and walked off like a sad little puppy dog? When Papelbon came up to the Red Sox through the minor leagues, he was a bulldog. He was cocky and in your face. He didn't give a damn about who the batter was because he was going to throw him heat and lots of it. And he was going to beat him.
This is who Red Sox fans fell in love with. Annoying? Yeah, sometimes, but a lot of that revolved around his confidence. He knew he was great and he loved it. He said what he wanted to and he never took anything back. He was fiery. He'd jump off the mound, pump his fist and yell into the Boston sky.
What has happened?
Game 3 of the 2009 American League Divisional Series against the Angels is what happened.
We don't need to go through all the details because if you're a Red Sox fan, you know the keys to it all: Papelbon blew it in epic fashion. The Red Sox went from holding on to the last bits of their 2009 life and getting to play at least one more game to ... not. All when Papelbon came in.
And the same thing happened then as it did Wednesday night: celebration at the plate while Papelbon dropped his head and walked off the mound toward the dugout. Not a yell. Not a fist pump. Not Papelbon.
Ever since then, Jonathan Papelbon has been missing.
It's almost as if Papelbon has found some spiritual rejuvenation. Maybe he's found Him. He seems like a different guy but - and this is the worst part - he's not any better for being a different guy. There's not a problem with being quiet and doing your job. But there is a problem with being quiet and not doing your job.
Personally, I'd rather see that old Papelbon attitude if he's going to start chucking up home runs. At least be the same guy. Some might see that as Papelbon not caring that he's all of a sudden hit a rut. I see that as Papelbon sticking true to himself. That doesn't mean throwing fastballs 85 percent of the time, and that doesn't mean to change his pitch selection a bit. If things are bad, he obviously needs to make changes. But why lose who you are? Why lose the attitude?
When it comes down to it, how a pitcher pitches is the most important thing. That's obvious. But Papelbon's character was such a huge part of his game. Some loved it and some hated it, but that was Papelbon. It worked. It followed him from the bullpen to the mound to the clubhouse. It defined him.
And now it's lost. The only thing defining Papelbon today is the top of his cap pointed at the dirt. That's all-too familiar imagery for Red Sox fans. And when competing in the American League East, there are only so many times you can see that before the season is lost.
It doesn't hurt to say this: Papelbon needs to find it again.