n Last year's rookie sensation as Boston's closer now moves into Red Sox rotation.

BY HOWARD ULMAN

The Associated Press

FORT MYERS, Fla. - Jonathan Papelbon lifted weights diligently to strengthen his ailing shoulder. Then he stood patiently in the woods, working on his duck calls so he could nab his prey and try his tasty recipe:

Slice the duck breast into four pieces, marinate in Italian dressing and cola and let sit for 12 hours. Wrap in jalapeno peppers, sour cream and bacon, then grill until the bacon is done. Grab a knife and fork and dig in.

"It's an old family recipe," the Red Sox closer-turned-starter said. "It's awesome."

Now that Papelbon's offseason hunting is done, he's optimistic his regular-season work also will be impressive.

A shoulder problem curtailed one of the best seasons by a rookie closer. Boston figures the shoulder will have less stress if he pitches just once every five days, and Papelbon said it feels fine.

So the homespun but hard-nosed righthander is trying to expand his repertoire.

If his curveball gets hitters out the way the cola gets the game flavor out, his pitching also could be awesome.

Papelbon didn't use that pitch at all last season, when he relied on fastballs, sliders and splitters in his short outings. He had 35 saves before ending his season Sept. 1 when he felt his right shoulder joint slipping against Toronto. But he headed into the offseason with optimism after pitching a pain-free batting practice session Sept. 30.

He finished with a 4-2 record and a 0.92 ERA, the third lowest in baseball history by a pitcher with at least 50 innings in a season. Not even Mariano Rivera has done that.

Papelbon loves to attack hitters. "Grip it and rip it," he said of his fastball.

"My curve is good, man. It's just going to be a matter of getting the feel and the touch back," Papelbon said. "All I'm going to have to do is get my curveball where my fastball, split and slider are. If I can do that, I'll be fine."

If he is, the Red Sox rotation that looks so good on paper could be dominant. Curt Schilling leads a group of starters that includes Josh Beckett, Tim Wakefield and newcomer Daisuke Matsuzaka.

The media attention focused on the Japanese star has overshadowed everything in spring training, even Boston's decision to turn its closer spot from an exclamation point to a question mark - an open competition between four or five pitchers who have never done it regularly.

"Hopefully, somebody will rise above and say, This is my job to keep,"' Papelbon said.

Papelbon was born in Baton Rouge, La., went to high school in Jacksonville, Fla., and was a closer at Mississippi State. The Red Sox turned him into a starter in 2003, his first pro season. But when they called him up late in 2005, he relieved in 14 of his 17 games and posted a 3-1 record and 2.65 ERA.

He came into spring training last year as a starter but shifted to the bullpen when former closer Keith Foulke had knee problems.

All those changes may have taken their toll on Papelbon's shoulder.

"I was trying to learn everything at once," he said, "and there were some things, obviously, that slipped by me. But, at the same time, I love the challenge of seeing if I'm able to close or see if I'm able to be a starter. The Red Sox drafted me as a starter so I think it's my natural role."

He's excited about starting but will miss closing, a role that made him an All-Star last year. Although the team insists it's not thinking about returning him to a closer's role, he said he would do it if asked.

"He looked very good," third baseman Mike Lowell said after facing Papelbon during batting practice this week. "I don't know about a 0.70 ERA, but he can be a dominating starter, without a doubt."

"Papelbon is going to be good at whatever he does," manager Terry Francona said. "He's had success at everything he's done wearing a Red Sox uniform, so he's going to do a great job as a starter."

As a closer, he was untouchable early last season. He didn't allow a run for his first 21 1-3 innings over 19 games. He converted his first 20 save opportunities. His highest ERA at any point was 1.00.

But when he did struggle, he didn't dwell on it and just moved on aggressively, a key trait for a closer.

"I'll miss the fans wanting me to come in. I'll miss that feel," Papelbon said. "Closing was a tremendous joy for me and I had a great time and I'll miss it, but I've got to turn the page."

His shoulder feels as "strong as ever" after last season's scare at the age of 26. He's confident he can pitch 175 to 200 innings and win at least 15 games in the sport he loves.

"This is what I live for. This is what makes me happy," Papelbon said. "Being out there on the mound is like a comfort zone for me.

"When things cross your mind like, Hey, I might not be able to do this again,' it really hits home big time," he said. "I've taken things for granted and I've said about my arm, Oh, it's healthy and it's strong,' and you can't really do that."

So Papelbon is committed to a disciplined routine to keep his shoulder strong throughout his career even if he had to give up a promising job as a closer. Joel Pineiro, also a starter before going to the bullpen with Seattle last season, has the inside track on the job and plans to get some tips from Papelbon.

"There's no way I'm going to follow him and try to do the same thing," Pineiro said. "I'm going to be myself."

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