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Papelbon brings heat during and after save

Saves have varying degrees of difficulty, and this one, considering all the circumstances, was the equivalent of a reverse three-and-half somersault with one-and-a-half twists off a three-meter springboard.

Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon. (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)Read moreGetty Images

Saves have varying degrees of difficulty, and this one, considering all the circumstances, was the equivalent of a reverse three-and-half somersault with one-and-a-half twists off a three-meter springboard.

The Phillies had already lost the first two games of the series with the first-place Atlanta Braves in disheartening fashion. They blew a ninth-inning lead Monday and wasted a complete-game, 13-strikeout gem from Cliff Lee Wednesday.

Lose again and they'd slip to five games behind the Braves in the National League East. You know what they say about April - "You can't win the division in the first month, but you sure can lose it" - and they tend to say it louder and with more vitriol around here.

Add in the three men due up for the Braves in the ninth inning Thursday afternoon and closer Jonathan Papelbon knew he had a daunting task in front of him.

Papelbon doesn't scare easily. He handled it with testosterone-driven perfection.

The contrarian closer got Freddie Freeman, Atlanta's best hitter, to lift a routine fly ball to centerfielder Ben Revere for the first out of the inning. He fell behind in the count 3-0 to Justin Upton, then pumped three straight fastballs past the Braves slugger, the last two being clocked at 93 m.p.h.

Papelbon needed only three more pitches to dispose of Chris Johnson, with the last one again lighting up the radar gun at 93 as he closed out the Phillies' 1-0 victory. It was Papelbon's fourth save of the season. Since his Texas meltdown in the third game of the season, the closer has retired 15 of the 17 batters he has faced in five scoreless innings.

"For me, the biggest thing in today's situation was the last couple of years that we've been here we've had something to prove against the Braves," Papelbon said. "They beat us up the last couple of years. If we are going to do anything in this division, we had to prove that we are going to be able to beat them whenever we can."

For a lot of other people, the most fascinating thing about Papelbon's pristine performance against the Braves was how much life there appeared to be on his fastball. As recently as the previous road trip in Chicago, Papelbon acknowledged that he'd like to see more velocity as the season progresses.

On this afternoon, however, he was obviously still coming down from the thrill ride it must be to protect a one-run lead against the best hitters in the other team's lineup, and he wanted to squash all talk about velocity.

Initially he was cordial.

"No," he said when asked if his adrenaline created extra velocity, a claim Curt Schilling constantly used to make. "I just had velocity. I don't even know what I threw today."

When the subject of velocity came up a second time, Papelbon went into a rant.

"Why do you guys care about velo so much man?" he asked. "Does that matter? You think that matters? I don't understand that. . . .

"You all killed Roy [Halladay] about velo. It's not a big deal. If you do your job and the ball is coming out of your hand, it doesn't matter how hard you are throwing."

It went on from there, and it's true that velocity isn't everything. It's also true that Papelbon exists in a fantasy world that he believes gives him a competitive edge. He talked about it earlier in the homestand. Hanging from the vacant locker next to his own is a bright pink robe with the words "Nature Boy" embroidered on it. It is signed by his favorite professional wrestler, Ric Flair.

"I'm kind of like the Ric Flair villain," he said. "I'm not going to be Hulk Hogan, I'm going to be Ric Flair. I've always had a chip on my shoulder no matter what. I like getting booed. I don't know, call me crazy, but I'll challenge the Phillie fans just as much as they challenge me.

"I'm not scared to do that. I'm not scared to say what's on my mind and say what I think. That's just the approach I've taken since I've got to the big leagues. Nothing is going to change from my standpoint.

I've been booed in Boston plenty of times. I've been booed here. Boos to me are like cheers."

A lot of closers are different. Papelbon has taken different to the extreme. It might be an act, but it's not one that is changing, and the Phillies need it to work because the closer isn't going anywhere.