It’s been a perfect start for closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has converted all five of his save opportunities.
Papelbon earned his fifth save with three more outs in the ninth as the Nationals shut out the Braves 3-0 on Wednesday night.
Catcher Wilson Ramos said he has noticed how aggressive Papelbon has been to begin this season, one big key to his ninth-inning success.
“To me, he’s aggressive this year,” Ramos said. “More aggressive. He throw two or three balls in a row, then he come back to the zone. He attack the zone really well. His pitches work well. That’s what we need.
“We need him aggressive on the mound, the closer, really aggressive. Hopefully, stay like that for the rest of the season, because we need him.”
Papelbon has a major league-leading five saves through the season’s first seven games with an ERA of 1.80.
Manager Dusty Baker was determined to give Papelbon the day off Tuesday after three straight appearances and three straight saves.
He did. Felipe Rivero recorded the save.
Then Baker called on Papelbon on Wednesday following a day of rest, and the closer delivered just like he has in every appearance to begin this season: a shutdown ninth.
“I think that’s just what our games are dictating right now and, for me, I’m just trying to stay ready,” Papelbon said. “I got a night off last night, but I felt like I could have pitched. I think our staff and our coaching staff is doing well getting guys in games.
“They’ve been managing our bullpen great so far, so I think it’s playing out the way it should be. It’s a long season, so we’ve just gotta keep plugging along and have everybody ready for each day.”
Papelbon said the timing of his day off each week has been perfect. He felt refreshed after yesterday’s respite.
“All rest helps,” Papelbon said. “I think it all plays into the later parts of the season. When you can have a bullpen that’s fresh in September and going into October, I think that makes for your team to be a lot better going into the playoffs and having a chance to succeed in the playoffs because it usually boils down to the bullpen.”
Ramos referenced Papelbon’s aggressiveness to begin this season. But does Papelbon feel his stuff is any better compared to the end of last season with the Nationals?
“My stuff has felt real good,” Papelbon said. “It feels better than it has in many years. I physically feel better than I have in a lot of years. I put a lot of hard work in this offseason to become a lot healthier physically and mentally. Becoming a mentally strong pitcher and not only that, but being physically strong.”
Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez and others have focused on how important the mental side of pitching has been to their quick starts. It is a component of their game that new pitching coach Mike Maddux has emphasized since the beginning of spring training.
“For me, it’s all about maximizing my ability to come back and pitch the next day,” Papelbon said. “Throughout time, I’ve learned how to do that.”