Yes, there was a game Sunday. Yes, the bullpen blew a lead and then some, condemning the Washington Nationals to yet another embarrassing loss, 12-5 at the hands of the lowly Philadelphia Phillies. But the story of today’s game was not the contest played on the field. It was Jonathan Papelbon‘s attack on Bryce Harper in the dugout that rightfully captured the headlines.
After Papelbon retired the last batter of the eighth inning, Harper came to bat in the home half of the frame. He lofted a fly to left and jogged to first. Papelbon took umbrage with his perceived lack of effort and yelled at him from the dugout. As Harper returned, the two continued arguing, and the confrontation turned violent as Papelbon grabbed Harper by the throat and pushed him against a wall, starting a fight that their teammates broke up. You can watch the bulk of the incident below.
Of course, it was far from over there. Harper stormed off, shouting “I’m f****** done!” as he blew by manager Matt Williams. Williams, in an act of tone-deafness on par with his pinch-hitting for Jordan Zimmermann in what was likely his final home start at Nationals Park Friday, decided to keep Papelbon in the game. His oh-so-fitting reasoning, as he said after the game, was simple: “He’s our closer.” As I later alluded to on Twitter, those words are a perfect fit as his managerial epitaph, emblematic of his by-the-book cluelessness and his utter inability to gauge his clubhouse.
Unsurprisingly, the Phillies battered their former teammate. Freddy Galvis blasted a two-run homer, and an error helped Papelbon load the bases before being pulled for Sammy Solis, who let six more runs score after an error and four consecutive singles. And this all happened with Tyler Moore in left field, replacing the departed Harper.
The saga continued after the game. Williams said the fight was a “family issue, and we’ll deal with it that way.” He said no internal suspension had been discussed. But he later said that he did not see video of the incident until after speaking with the press, and in light of it, he would “absolutely not” have used Papelbon for the ninth inning, adding, “I’m livid.” Even with that in mind, how he missed a fight in his own dugout and how he kept in his closer even after an altercation between the two caused his MVP right fielder to storm into the clubhouse is hard to understand.
To his credit, Papelbon was contrite after the game, saying, “I’m in the wrong.” He said he had apologized to Harper and gave a quote that was quite telling about his actions.
“I grew up with brothers,” Papelbon said. “He grew up with brothers. I view him as a brother of mine. Sometimes in this game there’s a lot of testosterone, and there’s a lot of intensity that spills over, and I think that happened today. For me, I can’t allow that to happen in the middle of a game. You handle that after the games or allow the manager to handle that.”
This logic should make sense to baseball fans. In the heat of the moment, players get angry, as has happened before with the Nats. But it’s never a lingering issue because these arguments never turn physical. Papelbon went way too far in his assault of Harper, and though the thought process is one that exists in some form for many players, the actions are inexcusable. Papelbon may well view Harper as his brother, but his attack of his teammate means the closer is likely not long for the Nationals’ roster.
If the team trades Papelbon and Drew Storen as expected this offseason, general manager Mike Rizzo will be tasked with building a bullpen from scratch. Felipe Rivero seems like the only lock to relieve for the Nats in 2015 and 2016.
Craig Stammen and David Carpenter, both reliable when at their best, will be returning from season-ending injuries and will be tough to count on. Aaron Barrett will be lost for the year with Tommy John surgery, and Matt Thornton and Casey Janssen are free agents. Tanner Roark is expected to return to the rotation. Blake Treinen and Sammy Solis wil have shots, but have been inconsistent in their MLB stints this year.
The only remaining relievers on the 40-man roster are Erik Davis, Matt Grace, Rafael Martin, and Abel De Los Santos, all of whom should serve as minor-league depth. Taylor Hill and Taylor Jordan have both relieved at the MLB level before, but are primarily starters at Triple A. But Davis and Jordan will be out of options in 2016, meaning they will have to make the MLB team or be exposed to waivers.
Harper was understandably not talkative after the game, saying “I’m looking forward to the next six games” four times according to the Washington Post’s James Wagner. About Papelbon, he said, “He apologized, so whatever. I really don’t care.” But his attitude belied his frustrations.
The Washington Nationals are a mess, and Sunday was the nadir of what has been a season of increasingly embarrassing lows.
By the way, Sunday was likely Ian Desmond‘s final home game as a National, after a storied and meaningful seven-year career on and off the field. At least he got a nice ovation.