The Sox's closer blew his fifth save of the season, but finished with the win as Boston defeated the Detroit Tigers 4-3 with a second consecutive walk-off win.
"That game seemed like we had it in the freezer," said Red Sox slugger David Ortiz. "The only bad thing is with the way [Clay] Buchholz pitched today, not earning the win is crazy. But a win is a win."
After Buchholz worked eight scoreless innings and held a 3-0 cushion, the right-hander faced two batters in the top of the ninth and allowed both to reach base before manager Terry Francona decided the starter's day was over.
Francona said after the game that he was not going to second-guess his decision to let Buchholz pitch the ninth inning even though Papelbon was getting warm.
"He was in charge of the game. His stuff was good," Francona said of Buchholz. "He was throwing fine."
As Buchholz left to a standing ovation from the 37,479 in attendance, the Dropkick Murphys' "I'm Shipping up to Boston" began to play as Papelbon emerged from the bullpen.
He took the mound as Tigers cleanup hitter Miguel Cabrera stepped into the box. Papelbon's first offering -- a 96 mph fastball -- was hit deep to center field and barely missed being a three-run homer; Cabrera had to settle for a two-run double. Cabrera was lifted for pinch runner Don Kelly, who later scored on Jhonny Peralta's RBI single to tie the game.
When the top of the inning ended with the game knotted at 3, Papelbon walked to the dugout with his head down.
"Right now [Cabrera] is a Triple Crown hitter," Papelbon said. "He's hitting pitcher's pitches and there's nothing you can do about it."
If the wind weren't blowing in, the ball Cabrera hit to center field would have landed on Storrow Drive. There aren't too many hitters in the big leagues that can hit that pitch the way Cabrera did.
Fortunately for the Red Sox and Papelbon, a throwing error on a sacrifice bunt attempt by Marco Scutaro in the bottom of the ninth inning brought in the game-winning run as pinch runner Darnell McDonald scored from second base.
Papelbon was credited with his fourth win, but he had been hoping for his 25th save of the season.
"Obviously it's my job, and Clay's been one of our best pitchers this year," Papelbon said. "As a closer, you want to protect those wins for your starter, and you take pride in it. I wasn't able to do it today and it stings a little bit. They work for the wins and I work for the saves, and neither one of them happened today."
Buchholz would have improved to 12-5, but he had to settle for a no-decision even though he was solid.
"Pap came in and he's one of the best in the game," Buchholz said. "I'd give the ball to him any day. It didn't happen today, but we were fortunate to get out of there with a win."
Fortunately, the Red Sox bailed out Papelbon on Sunday.
"He made a great pitch to Cabrera -- and the guy is hitting .350 for a reason and he leads the league in RBI, you have to make a great pitch," said Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez. "He was looking for that pitch because he was right on it. Pap threw the ball good. What else can you do?"
Of course, the talk around this baseball-crazed region will be the "Papelbon versus Daniel Bard for closer" debate. Yes, Bard has dominating stuff and, yes, it's very possible he will be the closer for this club some day. But Papelbon has the experience and is on the verge of his fifth 25-save season. There's no way Francona will suddenly switch their roles.
Bard and Papelbon make up one of the best one-two punches in the league as relievers, and that will continue at least until Papelbon reaches free agency after the 2011 season.
For now, Papelbon is focusing on the victory and looking forward to the rest of this season as the Red Sox try to make a push in the American League East now that the trade deadline is over.
"I like our attitude and I like our competiveness," Papelbon said. "Hopefully we can get some guys healthy and get on a nice little roll."
Winners of seven of their past 10 games, the Sox may be able to make a run if they don't have to save their closer too often.
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox and Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.