What do the Nationals do with Papelbon?

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Wow, there’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s get started.

There’s no doubt the Nationals players are frustrated with this season, but nobody expected this. Jonathan Papelbon attacked Bryce Harper in the dugout after the two exchanged words in the bottom of the 8th inning. (Watch the video here). Based on obvious lipreading, Papelbon gave Harper a hard time after “not running out” a fly ball. Harper, frustrated by his at bat and the season in general, did not appreciate the impromtu lesson in the Unwritten Rules of Baseball, particularly from a relief pitcher who’s been with the team for about five minutes.

Was Papelbon right to say something to Harper? Maybe. Maybe not. Harper “not running out” the fly ball looked barely distinguishable from what we see Major Leaguers do every day. Compare Harper’s at bat to Dan Uggla’s in the 7th inning when he carried his bat all the way to first base. The better answer to the above question is “who cares?” Papelbon tried to CHOKE A TEAMMATE in the dugout during a game. If you spend any time worrying about the Unwritten Rules of Baseball here, you’re probably missing the larger point.

I hate to bring this up, but this incident is another byproduct the annoying and persistent “Harper doesn’t hustle” narrative that was born when Matt Williams benched him in April 2014 after “not running out” a ground ball. To most Nationals fans, that incident is ancient history, but I can assure it is not around baseball. During the Mets/Nationals series earlier this month at Nats Park, a Mets fan in front of me stood up every time Harper hit the ball and screamed something along the lines of “Hustle Harper! Make sure you touch first!” Remember the incident this summer when the Braves announcing team criticized Harper for “not hustling?” Matty the Manager put a target on Harper with that unfortunate event in April 2014, and it’s still there. It’s funny that Matt Williams will be fired next week, and his enduring legacy in DC will be a presumption that Harper doesn’t hustle. Of course, any Nationals fan watching Harper on a daily basis knows how ridiculous that presumption is.

Papelbon, though, appears to be one of those irritating “old school” players who adhere to that Unwritten Code of Baseball where touching first base after the fielder catches the ball is more important than anything else, including, it appears, basic human decency. Marvel for a minute on the irony of Papelbon lecturing a teammate on playing the game of the “right way” and then moments later physically assaulting that same teammate during a game. It’s safe to assume Papelbon watched Harper from a distance in Philadelphia, regularly muttering to himself about this young punk Harper who didn’t “respect the game.” He probably nodded with approval in the dugout that night Cole Hamels hit him with a pitch for no particular reason. Now on the same team, Papelbon took out a season’s worth of frustration on Harper because Harper is an easy target. Harper is always an easy target.

Anyway, that’s enough about the fight. The bigger question facing the Nationals is what to do about Papelbon. The Nationals picked up his option for next season as a condition of Papelbon waiving this no-trade clause to come to DC. There are many Nats fans who want to cut Papelbon outright, but that doesn’t absolve the team from paying his $11 million 2016 salary. The Nationals could trade Papelbon, but the market for Papelbon would probably be soft. His reputation as a bad teammate didn’t get any better during his stay in DC, and he has a relatively large salary. Moreover, the Nats would be trading with no leverage if there’s a presumption the Nats have to trade him.

The best option right now is to take it one step at a time. Papelbon already has one suspension pending appeal for throwing at Manny Machado. (Speaking of this, does anyone now doubt Papelbon threw intentionally at Machado last Wednesday?) Papelbon would be smart to drop his appeal and serve his suspension this season. The Nationals, Rizzo probably, would be wise to suspend Papelbon for this incident to send a message, whatever is allowed under the collective bargaining agreement. This will give the Nats time to address Papelbon’s status in the offseason. This may be hard to believe, but people are capable of moving on from events like this. People fight, and then they move on. It’s entirely possible Harper and Papelbon cannot exist in the same clubhouse next season, but the Nats should wait to make sure that’s actually the case before dumping Papelbon for pennies on the dollar.

This is all very sad because it overshadowed the classy sendoff for Ian Desmond that Jordan Zimmermann was denied Friday night. This has been a painful season. It would have been nice to end it on a high note. Instead, Jonathan Papelbon, the poster boy for the disappointing 2015 Nationals, is sending us out on a low one.

Matt Williams and his clueless decision on Jordan Zimmermann

It was sad to see Jordan Zimmermann pitch his final game in DC wearing a Nationals uniform. Zimmermann was here before the division titles, before Harper and Strasburg, and before national magazines regularly put Nats players on their covers. Zimmermann pitched for this team when there were 100 loss seasons and empty ballparks.

Players move on. It happens. Long ago I made peace with players like Jordan Zimmermann leaving via free agency. In fact, it can be a benefit. Sometimes fan favorites stick around too long. Personally, I’d rather see a player like Zimmermann leave when he’s on top. That way, we don’t have to watch the long, slow, expensive decline.

But it’s important to stop the revolving door and every now and then and appreciate what’s happening. Friday night should have been about Jordan Zimmermann making his final start in Washington as a National. It was the last chance for fans to show their appreciation.

Matt Williams denied fans that opportunity when he lifted Zimmermann for a pinch hitter in the fifth inning. Williams could have pulled Zimmermann mid inning, which would have allowed a curtain call. It would have been a perfectly logical thing to do. The Nats were losing 6-1. This season is over. Instead, Williams opted for a small tactical baseball manuveur when he could have created a larger moment of significance for the franchise. When the occasion called for the manager to think big, Williams acted small.

This shouldn’t be entirely surprising. Matt Williams showed a shocking lack of awareness during his Nationals tenure, which should be coming to a close very soon. As Williams made bizarre decision after bizarre decision this season, he never seemed to grasp the enormity of his ignorance. Williams is a linear thinker who sees baseball through a very narrow lens. In his world, the fifth inning was a pinch hit situation, so goshdarnit, he was pinch hitting. In Matty’s world, there are no larger considerations and there’s no other point of view. He’s the manager, and he’s going to manage his way.

It’s too bad because fans were robbed of something that could have been a pretty memorable moment. This isn’t a franchise with a lot of history. Jordan Zimmermann is easily best pitcher in team history. He was a big part of some very important moments to this young fanbase. Many fans went to Nats Park on Friday night for one reason: Jordan Zimmermann. Instead, thanks to our clueless and soon to be unemployed manager, it turned into another pointless September baseball game in a season where there have been far too many.

If Bryce Harper gets hit today, he has a right to be angry

It’s been a rough season for Bryce Harper. At the plate, of course, he’s having his best season as a pro, and he’s a lock to win the NL MVP award. But it has to be painful for Harper to put up that kind of performance, only to see his teammates bumble and stumble to a mediocre second place finish. Harper did his part this year, and more. His teammates, however, consistently let him down. 

Last night, he was let down again. In case you missed it, Nats reliever Jonathan Papelbon was ejected after throwing at the head of Manny Machado, perhaps in retaliation for the latter’s “pimping” after his home run in the 7th inning. Is it possible Papelbon momentarily lost his control, and wasn’t intentionally throwing at Machado? Perhaps, but the circumstantial evidence here is pretty damning. Papelbon twice threw in the direction of Machado’s head in three pitches. When asked about it after the game, Papelbon didn’t really defend himself too strongly, instead saying “perception is reality.” Maybe Papelbon wasn’t trying to hit Machado, and was only trying to “brush him back.” If so, that defense wouldn’t quite hold up in a court of law. Your honor, I was trying to fire the gun over the head of the victim! I wasn’t trying to kill him. Sure buddy, you’re going to jail. 

Whether Papelbon intentionally hit Machado is irrelevant at this point anyway, because everyone thinks he did, including the Orioles. Perception is reality. And now today, Bryce Harper will probably be hit by a pitch, because that’s the way these things work. 

Harper has unfortunately been on the wrong end of intentional beanings since he came in the league. Cole Hamels famously hit Harper during Bryce’s first week in the league, for no particular reason. The Braves continually hit Harper throughout the 2013 season, for largely imagined offenses against the sacred Unwritten Rules of Baseball. The idea of enforcing sportsmanship or tradition through beanballs is stupid, archaic, and dangerous. I hated it when teams did it against Harper, and I hate it even more when the Nats do it, which is what appears to be the case with Papelbon and Machado. 

While I generally hate pitchers intentionally throwing at batters, I have no problem with teams retaliating. If the Orioles throw at Harper today, it’ll be hard to blame them. Throwing at Machado last night was immature and dangerous. The Orioles pitchers are justified in sending a message they won’t tolerate it. It’s not about revenge. It’s not about taking the “high road” or the “low road.”  It’s about preventing it from happening again. 

In the past, I’ve criticized Nationals pitchers for not protecting Harper. In 2013, Stephen Strasburg eventually threw a pitch at Justin Upton after the Braves hit Bryce on multiple occasions. The retaliation generally worked, but it took way too long, and Bryce was hit way too many times before a Nationals pitcher stepped in to defend him. Earlier this season, Gio Gonzalez chickened out after a pretty blatant intentional beaning against the Reds. Tanner Roark retaliated the next day. You can bet Bryce takes note of which Nats pitchers have his back, and which ones don’t.

Retaliating when your players are targeted is only one way to protect your hitters, however. The most effective way is to avoid these pointless beanball wars in the first place. The last four years, I’ve grown weary of seeing Bryce Harper hit by pitches. Unfortunately, we might see another one today. For that, the Nats can only blame themselves. 

Picking up the pieces after the Mets sweep the Nats

The wreckage of the Nationals playoff hopes is scattered on the Nats Park infield and it’s hard to know where to begin picking up the pieces. Let’s start with Matt Williams, because we may not have Matt Williams to talk about very much longer. It’s getting harder and harder to imagine Williams returning to this team next year. The 2015 Nationals’ flameout was so swift and so complete it almost demands a scapegoat. 

Last night, Williams was hampered by the same thing that’s publicly haunted him all season: bullpen management. It was insane to put Drew Storen back on the mound last night with the game on the line considering what happened Tuesday night. Ordinarily, it’s smart management to believe in your players, but last night was anything but ordinary. It was a must win. And Tuesday night was anything but an ordinary poor performance by Storen. It was a complete mental breakdown. Storen didn’t just miss his pitches on Tuesday, he missed them by feet. After seeing what happened in Game 2 of this series, it was completely illogical for a manager to expect Storen to succeed last night, particularly against the exact same hitter who wrecked his confidence the night before. 

In a sense, the Storen decision was vintage Matty: choosing baseball convention over the most logical choice considering all the factors. In April, it’s probably a good idea to give your closer (or primary setup man) the chance to bounce back before a failure mentally metastasizes. But in a win or go home scenario, it’s rolling the dice and expecting two sixes.

But the decision to fire Williams won’t be made on bullpen management. As noted many times, managing a bullpen is only a small part of a manager’s job, and something that can be fixed or mitigated over time. Instead, Rizzo and team ownership will make the decision based on whether Williams is the right guy to lead this team. In that regard, there’s more than enough smoke to suspect Matty has lost the locker room. I’m not in the clubhouse, but those with access are reporting Matty’s dour demeanor and leadership style is not helpful in a pennant race. In baseball, it’s hard to measure the innate qualities in a clubhouse leader. Williams has definitely shown he can’t tactically push the right buttons. From the outside, however, it looks like he can’t inspire the team either. 

Will Williams make it through the season? I suspect he will. We don’t have far to go. A new string of losing against teams like the Marlins and Phillies might cause Rizzo to put Matty out of his misery, but Nats leadership is likely to wait and reasses everything once the season is over. 

Speaking of reassessing things, Williams’ job status is only one item on a long list. This season’s particular failure had a thousand fathers, and Williams is only one. The seeds of the Nats collapse this year were sown all over the field Wednesday night. It’s fitting names like Cespedes, Kelly Johnson, and Tyler Clippard played a role in the Mets sweep of the Nats because these guys weren’t even on the Mets roster a month and a half ago. Matt Williams was routinely outmanaged this season, but Mike Rizzo was thoroughly out general managed by Sandy Alderson. The Mets GM smelled blood in the water and made a run for the division by completely overhauling his roster. At the trade deadline, Rizzo did next to nothing. Cespedes could have manned the corner outfield with Harper in center, but Rizzo arrogantly expected hurt and recovering Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, and Denard Span to carry this offense to the playoffs. In retrospect it was a huge and unwise gamble. While the narrative will certainly focus on the bullpen right now, it’s easy to forget the Nats division deficit was created in August, when this team couldn’t score enough runs. Rizzo deliberately maintained a thin roster, which was thoroughly exposed after the trade deadline. 

There will be changes to the Nats this offseason–probably big ones. Matty might be gone, but the purge will only begin there. 

Reflections on the Nationals meltdown against the Mets

Sports can give us moments we’ll never forget, for all the wrong reasons. The ball bouncing off Ian Desmond’s glove in Game 5. Pablo Sandoval ripping a game-tying double down the line in Game 2. Now Nationals fans have a third moment: the slow inexorable bullpen meltdown in the 7th inning on Tuesday night. If you didn’t witness the Nats bullpen giving up 6 runs in one inning to lose a 7-1 lead last night, you wouldn’t have believed it.

Then again, if you watched the Cardinals series last week and game 1 of this Mets series on Monday, last night’s 7th inning meltdown was a little bit foreseeable. When Blake Treinen entered the game in the top of the 7th on Tuesday night with a fresh 7-1 lead, even the most optimistic Nats fan was a little worried. Just get through the seventh. When Treinen gave up a hit and walked a batter (an unpardonable sin with a 6 run lead), panic started to set in. Panic in this situation–in almost any other context–would have been completely unreasonable. Teams don’t routinely blow 6 run leads after the 6th inning. But we’ve seen this movie before, and so has Matt Williams. When Treinen gave up another single to make to the score 7-2, Williams chose not to take any chances. He brought in his most reliable available left-handed reliever, Felipe Rivero. But Rivero didn’t look sharp, pitching on a third consecutive day. He walked the bases loaded (again an unpardonable sin with a 6 run lead) and then walked in a run. Williams, again not taking chances, brought in Drew Storen. Williams obviously imagined a quick out and then a quick 8th inning before turning the game over to Jonathan Papelbon in the 9th.

But Storen was wild. He wasn’t tired like Rivero but his mechanics were just as skewed. He gave up a base-clearing double to Yoenis Cespedes and suddenly the game was 7-6. The next three at bats were the most painful I’ve ever personally witnessed. Storen was rattled. Perhaps it was the pressure. Maybe it was the ghosts of Game 5 and Game 2. Maybe Drew simply didn’t have his best stuff, he knew it, and he was afraid to pitch normally. Whether he was nervous or simply didn’t trust his stuff, the result was the same. A complete and total meltdown: and not a “meltdown” like Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS, where Storen nibbled at the corners and couldn’t get a called third strike. Storen wasn’t even close on his pitches Tuesday night. His location was so poor Wilson Ramos had trouble catching the pitches since he had no clue where they would end up. Whatever stood on the mound in the 7th inning last night wasn’t Drew Storen. It was a broken pitcher.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. The season is over. There’s a mathematical chance of catching the Mets, but in all likelihood, last night’s meltdown ended the NL East division race.

Where do we go from here?

Drew Storen’s career as a National is likely over. After next season, he’s a free agent. He still has great stuff and there will be a closer-needy team willing to pay for him. The Papelbon-Storen experiment simply didn’t work. It should have, but it didn’t. With Papelbon signed through next season, Storen probably would have been traded this offseason anyway, but another critical meltdown with the season on the line makes it almost a certainty. If anyone ever needed a change of scenery, it’s Drew Storen.

And Matt Williams. Matty just can’t quite seem to get it right, although he has so little to work with in the bullpen. I give credit to Williams for actually managing this game like it was a must-win (he was also probably managing to save his job). He pulled Zimmermann before it was too late. He replaced Treinen when it was time. After watching Rivero load the bases with horrific control, Williams probably should have pulled the plug before he was allowed to walk in a run. But at least he wasn’t afraid to turn to his “8th inning guy” when he was truly needed in the 7th. After seeing Storen load the bases too, Williams also let Storen face one too many batters. I realize there were no reliable options left in the bullpen, but Storen was a car with the gas pedal stuck to the floor. Literally any other car is safer.

And then the bunt. Matt Williams sacrifice bunting one of his best hitters (with a 3-1 count) is just pure lunacy. It’s even crazier when you consider the bunt properly executed probably takes the bat out of Bryce Harper’s hands. Had Rendon succeeded in his sacrifice bunt attempt, the Mets intentionally walk Harper. And that’s after they’re given a free out.

At that point, however, the biggest damage had been done. The biggest weakness of the 2015 Nats officially became the first line of their obituary, which is now safe to be written. Last night gave us another terrible moment we’ll never forget. At a minimum, it’ll stick with us as long as it takes Matt Williams to make that long slow walk to the mound, ready to replace one reliever with another who just can’t quite get the job done.