The Washington Nationals Continue To Author The Season That Can’t End Soon Enough

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One picture to sum up an entire season. Photo: Getty Images

There have been too many low points to recall during the 2015 Washington Nationals season. Saturday evening should have been the last one.

As the Nats and Phillies were in the midst of laboring through an extra inning dud on a cloudy, rainy, windswept afternoon at Nats Park, Jeurys Familia was in Cincinnati recording the final, NL East clinching out for the Mets. A season that had spun out of control for months, was for all intents and purposes, mercifully over. 

An October without baseball has been assumed by most rational Nats fans for weeks, but on Saturday night it became a reality. That finality — no matter how imminent it was — still stung. 

So the Nats and Phillies headed into Sunday, for an utterly meaningless game. Then, in a game that would have barely made a blip on the national radar, this happened:

After a Bryce Harper, shallow fly ball was caught, Jonathan Papelbon starting barking at Harper from the top step about his effort level and the episode escalated into the video above.

Clear as day, there’s Papelbon lunging from a couple steps above Harper and violently shoving him against the back wall of the dugout, one hand firmly gripped around Harper’s throat. 

The fracas was broken up, Harper took himself out of the game (he said afterwards he was due to be taken out at that point of the game anyways) and Papelbon astonishingly came back out to pitch the 9th inning.

Matt Williams claims he didn’t see the severity of the altercation, or else he would have not let Papelbon go out to pitch the 9th.

For the last few Matt Williams defenders left in DC — if there any left at this point — this had to be the final straw. It’s unfathomable that the Manager of the team was sitting a few feet away in the dugout and had no idea that his closer had just put a choke hold on his star player.

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Papelbon inexplicably still in the Nats dugout after choking Harper, and looking mighty proud to boot. Photo: Andrew Dreps

This fiasco has been far more polarizing than I could have ever imagined. Strong opinions have formed, many chastising Papelbon as a hot headed malcontent that acted way out of line.

Somehow other voices have been heard from that claim Harper had it coming for calling out Papelbon in the media (after Papelbon hit Manny Machado on Wednesday night, resulting in both benches clearing) and that there wasn’t much wrong with what he did to Harper.

Former big league pitcher and current FOX sports writer C.J. Nitkowski got the most play with his post that aggregated a bunch of anonymous posts from current and former players who were all in favor of Papelbon’s actions, to varying degrees. I never played professional baseball and I understand it’s a very different universe to inhabit than most other professions, but attempting to choke someone isn’t defensible because you think someone didn’t run out a fly ball. That is common freakin’ sense.

It’s not totally surprising that there is backlash against Harper, even in a situation like this one. 41% of players polled voted him the most overrated player in baseball prior to this season. Yasiel Puig came in a distant 2nd with 15% of the votes.

It’s easy to forget that this is Harper’s 4th year in the big leagues. He’s 22 years old and is putting a bow on one of the most impressive offensive seasons in the modern era. When put in context by how young he is, it’s amazing to think what the future holds for him. 

Kris Bryant is a likely winner of the NL Rookie of the Year; Bryce Harper is a year younger than him. 

Bryce Harper has had exactly one at bat against a pitcher younger than him. 

I mention all this, because a lot of the anti-Harper backlash reeks of jealousy from older players and ex-players who think throwing at someone’s head and putting a chokehold on a teammate in the dugout are sound baseball principles. The resentment of a young star like Harper — even if he does come off as brash, he’s 22 for Christ’s sake! — is pretty pathetic when trying to defend someone who physically assaulted a teammate.

MLB Network analyst and long time player Mark DeRosa hit the nail on the head, arguing that a relief pitcher should never, ever question the effort of an everyday player. Especially not on the top step of the dugout in the middle of a game and especially not a relief pitcher whose been with the team for a couple months.

Harper shouldn’t have called out Papelbon in the media after the Orioles game, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent the Nats should have never traded for Papelbon to begin with back in late July.

Jonathan Papelbon should never pitch again for the Nationals, plain and simple.

The team owes him $11M next year, since they picked up his contract from the Phillies in the trade. This was a result of the team not wanting to add payroll to this year –the Phillies picked up the rest of his contract for 2015 — but still making an addition to their thin bullpen. 

The Nats ignored several red flags about Papelbon and created this mess. Now they need to pay off this lunatic and release him. Papelbon’s presence on the Nats roster next spring is unacceptable. 

Matt Williams should be fired next Monday. A barrage of questionable in game moves throughout the season had left him with very little rope; yesterday took that last shred of rope and set it on fire like St Louis FieldTurf. 

Barry Svrluga’s column over the weekend about Matt Williams losing the clubhouse didn’t help matters either. Svrluga is very dialed in with the Nats and is a reliable source for team news;  these quotes from multiple players about the unrest in the clubhouse are extremely damning for Williams.

It is inexcusable to be so aloof in your own dugout, as he was on Sunday. Williams has proved to be a manager caught up in the minutiae of the game, unable to have a grander sense of situations, on and off the field. If only — he wishes — not giving Jordan Zimmermann a chance for a final farewell on Friday was his biggest misstep of the weekend. A very tense Williams summed up his time as the Nationals manager with this embarrassing gem in his post game presser:

Things got so bad that he actually called a 2nd press conference with the media in his office, which is where he came clean in admitting he hadn’t seen the choke hold heard around the baseball world. 

Still, “He’s our closer” will echo in the heads of Nationals fans well after Matt Williams has cleaned out his office.

Yesterday was Fan Appreciation Day at Nats Park, as each player signed their game worn jersey and gave it to a season ticket holder after the game. Harper and Papelbon were both noticeably absent from the ceremony, no doubt still seething from their earlier dugout brawl.

I’m not sure any fan would have appreciated shaking the same hand that moments earlier was firmly gripped around the neck of the franchise. 

 

 

 

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