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Improved Papelbon a key factor in improved Phillies

Since his early-season meltdown, Jonathan Papelbon has been stellar, a large reason for the Phillies' late success.

Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon. (Matt York/AP)
Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon. (Matt York/AP)Read more

JIMMY ROLLINS gobbled up the routine ground ball and fired it to a waiting Ryan Howard at first base, and Jonathan Papelbon pumped his fist in celebration.

The starting pitcher was brilliant, the offense was timely and productive, the defense was solid and the closer finished it off. This was how games were supposed to play out in the baseball blueprint Ruben Amaro Jr. drew up.

Heading into their second homestand of the season, the Phillies have a wining record (13-12) after 25 games, thanks to a teamwide effort.

On some days, Chase Utley (a candidate for player of the month honors) or Carlos Ruiz (named the National League Player of the Week yesterday) carries the team with their bats. On others, Cliff Lee or A.J. Burnett dominates from the mound.

But it takes numbers 1 through 25 on the roster, and the Phillies have received key contributions from nearly everyone in the season's first 4 weeks.

"I definitely think we're headed in a better direction," Papelbon said. "And that's the whole key. You want to constantly get better as a team. All good teams that I've been on progressively get better as the season goes on. And I'm seeing signs of that."

Perhaps the most encouraging development among more than a handful of encouraging developments is the turnaround Papelbon has made from the season's first week into the 3 weeks that followed.

When he watched Rollins throw across the diamond to Howard for the final out on Sunday in Phoenix, Papelbon had recorded his eighth straight save since his ugly blown save in the second game of the season in Arlington, Texas. During the just-completed road trip, the Phillies won six of their last eight games, and the $50 million closer was right there, collecting a save in four of those six.

"Papelbon is on a nice roll," manager Ryne Sandberg said Sunday. "He's throwing the ball well."

Perhaps the numerous reports (present company included) of Papelbon's rapid decline were a bit premature.

Even if his fastball no longer has the pop it had in Boston and his first season in Philadelphia in 2012, something he said was overblown anyway, Papelbon has tapped into a veteran's pitchability, adapting from thrower to pitcher. He's been close to perfect in save situations.

The evidence: In his eight straight saves since his blowup against the Rangers, Papelbon hasn't allowed a run in a save situation; he's also allowed only four hits and hasn't walked a batter. Of the 28 batters he's faced in those eight innings, Papelbon has allowed only five to reach base (four hits, one hit by pitch), while striking out five.

Thirteen of the 24 outs he has recorded in those save situations have been either strikeouts or groundouts.

"Pap's command is a little bit better now than it was at the end of last year," Amaro said. "His stuff is a little crisper."

Papelbon hasn't allowed a run in 10 consecutive outings since that April 2 game in Texas.

But even on the season as a whole, including that forgettable game, Papelbon has allowed only nine hits to the 47 batters he's faced, and only one of them went for extra bases (a double). Opponents are hitting .220 against Papelbon in 12 games.

For a frame of reference, opponents hit .247 against Papelbon last year and had 13 extra-base hits (six home runs) in 61 games.

"I will say this, when you feel good, you play good," Papelbon said. "That goes a long way."

This spring, Papelbon acknowledged he pitched through a hip injury last season, when he had seven blown saves. On Sunday, Papelbon acknowledged that it affected him more than he's let on publicly.

"But," he said, "as a competitor, you want to continue to drive. I'm not much of a DL person."

In the first month of the season, the Phillies haven't been much of a DL team, which is probably the leading reason they're north of the .500 mark with the season's first month nearly over. Utley is healthy, as are Howard and Ruiz; and Cole Hamels just returned from a 3-week stay on the DL.

The lineup and rotation are at full strength, and there's even hope of improving an inconsistent bullpen with Mike Adams back, too. There is still a long way to go from May through September, but the season's first month is, at worst, encouraging for a team that had a laundry list of question marks when it left spring training.

"I'm not really encouraged with what I'm seeing," Papelbon said. "I'm more encouraged with our ability to stay focused on the day-to-day activity, and not let get caught up in the, 'Oh, we lost two or three in a row' and letting that kind of snowball into more games lost."

A prime example of that occurred on the beginning of the road trip, when the Phils had a pair of ugly losses at Colorado, coming off an uneasy series with the Atlanta Braves. The Phils responded by winning six of their next eight games, with strong starting pitching and an offense that showed an ability to rally late when needed.

Perhaps the Phillies got their mojo back. "Well," Papelbon said, "I got a better hip back."

And that's a good start.