As the Nationals batted in the bottom of the seventh inning, cameras caught Jonathan Papelbon sitting in the dugout. Moments later, as Oliver Perez and Shawn Kelley pitched through the top of the eighth, the Nationals’ closer stayed there while Felipe Rivero warmed up. When the Nationals took the field for the top of the ninth, in a save situation with a three-run lead, Papelbon stayed in the dugout — a perplexing place to be in such circumstances, in as big a game as June can muster.
Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said later that Papelbon was unavailable Monday. Why? On that point, Baker was reluctant to elaborate.
“We really don’t know yet,” Baker said. “Pap was feeling pretty sore, and he was ailing, so we didn’t really have Pap tonight. We’ll make an evaluation tomorrow.”
What are they evaluating? What’s sore? His arm?
“No, not his arm,” Baker said. “He was just sore.”
Papelbon was gone by the time reporters were allowed in the Nationals’ clubhouse after the game. He pitched in Sunday’s game, when he allowed the go-ahead run to the Phillies in the top of the ninth, his fastball sitting between 89 and 91 mph. Papelbon, who has averaged a fastball velocity of 90.7 this season, spoke to reporters after the game, with no ice on his body and no outward signs of trouble. He was in the clubhouse before Monday’s game, seemingly moving around as normal.
Whatever Papelbon’s fate — and it seems likely we will have more clarity Tuesday — his is one of the narratives rising to the forefront of this Nationals season. He has blown two saves this season, and made adventures of a few others. Hitters swung and missed at around 12 percent of his pitches last season. This year, the number is down to 9 percent. They are making contact with nearly 88 percent of strikes at which they swing, far above Papelbon’s career average. Strikeouts are not everything, though conventional baseball wisdom suggests swings and misses are ideal in later innings. Either way, Papelbon’s 6.93 strikeouts per nine innings is the lowest such rate of his career.
“I feel like I’ve been as successful as I have been in many other years,” Papelbon said after Sunday’s outing, leaning back in the chair in front of his locker, which is normal. “I haven’t been that great in tie ballgames this year, but when my number’s called for save situations, you know…”
Asked about his closer, Baker pointed out that most of Papelbon’s trouble has come against the Phillies, and indeed, of the four saves he has blown since joining the Nationals, two have come against Philadelphia. Baker remembered Hank Aaron telling him that relaxed pitchers are dangerous pitchers, tight ones less so, and speculated that perhaps Papelbon is trying to hard against his former team. Papelbon himself could not explain his trouble with the Phillies on Sunday, though he has allowed nine runs this season, four against the Phillies. But he has endured trouble in Chicago, Kansas City and Cincinnati, too. He is sixth in the National League in saves anyway, and 10th on the all-time list. He has allowed at least one man to reach in 17 of 25 appearances this season.
Baker pointed out that very few pitchers in the league could be considered “lockdown” closers right now — and said that the last three outs are often the toughest to manufacture.
“A lot of guys can’t get that. A lot of guys they can be in set up roles, but they aren’t very good in that closer role,” Baker said. “…the thing of the closer is that it’s like a defensive back, a cornerback. He can have great game and then get burned in the fourth quarter and that’s all they talk about. We don’t talk about saves, you talk about blown saves and that’s what comes with the territory. I’m not defending, but the guy has [16 saves].”
As they usually do, top-notch relievers may become available at the trade deadline. If the Yankees decide to offload talent instead of trying to contend, left-handers Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman — who Baker managed in Cincinnati — could be options. Should the Nationals look to upgrade in the back end of their bullpen, they will have those and other options to look into as July turns to August.
Until then, and this is not imminently relevant, someone asked Baker if he might consider sitting Papelbon against the Phillies, given his history. Baker said no, that moves like that have psychological effects the average baseball outsider doesn’t think about. What Papelbon needs, Baker said, is positivity.
“Until you find somebody better, this is what we have. Instead of getting on him, let’s pull for him and send him some positive vibes,” Baker said. “There aren’t many lockdown closers. He’s a potential all-star. This guy has 16 saves. What’s tops right now, 20? You take away his saves and where are we? He’s one of ours and until then, until something else, he’s still ours.”