Jonathan Papelbon's overreliance on his fastball finally caught up to him against Tampa Bay on Tuesday night in the Red Sox's 5-4 loss against the Rays.
After throwing 14 fastballs and nothing else Tuesday, he started left-handed pinch-hitter Dan Johnson with five fastballs, including a 3-1 pitch down the middle that Johnson just missed. Yet, despite the obvious call for a splitter with a 3-2 count on a left-handed hitter, Papelbon went back to the fastball, and Johnson -- already starting his bat early on the previous pitch -- took it out to deep right-center.
Even after the home run, the mono-pitch approach continued. Willy Aybar saw four fastballs, hit the last one hard, but lined out to center. Fernando Perez, 1-for-10 in the majors, got two fastballs and tagged the second one -- 95 mph and up -- nearly taking it over the Green Monster (and showing more opposite-field power than I ever thought he had). Dioner Navarro saw two fastballs and doubled Perez home on the second one. Over two nights, Papelbon threw 30 straight fastballs before throwing any other type of pitch; he eventually threw one splitter and one slider Tuesday, but well after the damage had been done.
Relying exclusively on a fastball -- even a good one like Papelbon's -- poses two problems. First, the hitter can mostly look at one level within the zone for a pitch to hit. Pitchers use off-speed pitches to change hitters' eye levels, forcing them to consider that the pitch might finish up in the zone, down in the zone or below the zone. Secondly, hitters can "cheat" and start their bats a little earlier when they know -- or can reasonably guess -- that a fastball is coming. Johnson absolutely was doing it Tuesday, as was Aybar, although he does that all the time anyway. Papelbon has to start mixing in a second pitch, preferably the splitter, or hitters will keep timing his fastball and driving it to the outfield or out of the park.
Papelbon's blown save masked some bad bullpen management by Rays manager Joe Maddon. Grant Balfour recorded a 1-2-3 seventh on just 11 pitches, and he's the best pitcher in that Tampa bullpen. Rather than use him for a second inning, Maddon chose to downgrade the pitcher on the mound (losing about 5 mph of velocity) by rolling Dan Wheeler out in the eighth, only to see Wheeler give up the lead.
Maddon's borderline-insane refusal to remove Troy Percival from the closer role nearly cost him again, as David Ortiz didn't miss a game-ending home run by much after Percival walked the leadoff man. Over his past 12 innings pitched, Percival has walked nine and struck out just six. He also has allowed five home runs. I've never been an advocate of the idea of putting your best reliever in the closer role, but putting a reliever who's this bad (he has a 6.12 ERA since the end of April) out there with one-run leads in the ninth inning is just asking for trouble.