August 20, 2019

More off-field drama for Nationals in aftermath of Papelbon-Harper altercation

It’s unacceptable.

There are ways to let a teammate know you think he isn’t playing the game “the right way.” And then, there’s what Jonathan Papelbon did Sunday afternoon.

As if the Washington Nationals needed any more drama heading into the off-season after missing the playoffs in a season they started out as near-unanimous World Series picks.

You’ve seen it by now. Bryce Harper, everyone’s N.L. MVP, didn’t bust his hump on a pop-up in the bottom of the eighth inning in what was still a 4-4 game. Papelbon jaws at Harper the entire way off the field, then once Harper is in the dugout, below Papelbon’s vantage, Papelbon goes for Harper’s throat and the two have to be separated.

Here’s the entirety, if you missed it.

Papelbon is clearly in the wrong, on all accounts. It’s not his duty to police Harper’s actions, especially from the top of the dugout in front of his teammates and within view of national television cameras. It’s especially wrong to continue the confrontation in a physical manner.

This, on the heels of Papelbon awaiting a hearing for his three-game suspension for throwing at Manny Machado last week. It’s twice in a week Papelbon has resorted to violence to enforce his view of baseball’s unwritten rules. He’s a dangerous menace.

After the exchange, manager Matt Williams inexplicably allowed Papelbon to go out and pitch the ninth, in which the Phillies proceeded to score eight runs.

Williams was obviously asked about the incident in his post-game press conference. Here was the exchange:

Q: What was behind your decision to send Papelbon back out for the ninth?

A: At the time, it’s a tie game.

Q: But given what happened?

A: He’s our closer.

Q: It appeared [Papelbon] put his hands on [Harper’s] throat?

A: He’s our closer. That’s all I’m going to say on the matter. He’s our closer. In a tie game, he’s in the ballgame in the ninth inning.

Let’s forget, for an instance, that Papelbon only agreed to the trade to D.C. because the Nats acquiesced to his demand that he only pitch in save situations, the reason he only pitched four time in the first 18 days he wore the uniform.

The idea that the manager can allow any player, but especially the pitcher, to go back onto the field into a tied game after an altercation in the dugout — which, by the way, that player instigated — is simply incredible.

After the game, Papelbon told reporters that he apologized to Harper, that he was “in the wrong.” Harper said it was like brothers fighting, and he was concentrating on the remaining games on the schedule. The players tried to say the right things and de-escalate the situation.

But actions speak louder than words. Papelbon has a long and inglorious history of this type of behavior and absolutely nothing good has happened since the Nats traded for him at the deadline.

As for Williams, his words in the press conference continue to reinforce the idea of his tone-deafness and inability to deviate from his set plan.

Describing the incident as a “family issue” that would be handled internally is akin to brushing it off. He essentially once again acquiesced to Papelbon, tacitly backing him as opposed to standing up for the team’s MVP in an altercation that luckily got no one hurt.

And all the while, Mike Rizzo says nothing, allowing the situation to linger and cast a pall on what little baseball is left.

Instead of celebrating Harper’s MVP season, instead of sending impending free agents Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond off in style, we’re left with this: watching the worst trade deadline acquisition of the season — maybe of all time — choke out the team and league’s MVP in the dugout of a tied game, then allowed back onto the field while the manager sits idly.

It’s been a long season. The offseason promises lots of turnover. Some of it was by design. Some of it now will be out of necessity. The turmoil surrounding the Nats is palpable. What just a few months ago seemed a model franchise is now under scrutiny for dysfunction.

Before Aug. 1, the play on the field wasn’t what everyone wanted, but they were still in first place. Since the trade for Papelbon, it’s all gone to hell — on the field and off. The trade was a mistake at the time, and now will prove infinitely more so.

I wrote in my piece yesterday the Nats wasted another year of Harper and Stephen Strasburg in their primes. How they handle this altercation could hasten their departure from D.C.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press and is a copy editor for the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, WA. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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