On July 28, in the hours after the Washington Nationals acquired Jonathan Papelbon from the Philadelphia Phillies, questions emerged. Would known firebrand Papelbon disrupt the Nationals’ normally stoic clubhouse? How could the Nationals slight Drew Storen like that, and what would the move do to him? Would one of the more prolific closers of the last decade add the edge the Nationals needed to make a deeper playoff push than ever before?
On Sunday, in the hours after Papelbon put his hands on Bryce Harper’s throat and allowed five runs, two earned, in a ninth-inning implosion, those questions have unpleasant answers. And there’s a follow-up, too: What do the Nationals do with Papelbon now?
“We haven’t spoken about that yet,” Nationals Manager Matt Williams said after the game, insistent that what happened between his 22-year-old MVP candidate and controversial closer is “a family issue, and we’ll deal with it that way.”
Papelbon said he did not expect to be disciplined by the team. He is due a suspension soon anyway, though that one will come from Major League Baseball as soon as the league settles his ongoing appeal that allowed him to play this weekend in the first place. The league issued him a three-game ban and undisclosed fine for throwing at Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado’s head Wednesday.
Those two pitches, which the league deemed intentional and earned Papelbon an ejection, led Harper to wonder after Wednesday’s game whether he would be hit Thursday in retaliation. Harper did not seem happy about having to wonder about that at all, although Papelbon and Williams said Sunday that had nothing to do with Sunday’s tension.
That there was tension at all answers one of the initial questions asked about Papelbon: Did he disrupt the Nationals’ clubhouse chemistry? On Sunday, he did. He was apologetic after the game, speaking quietly and calmly to reporters.
“I’m in the wrong there,” he said, unwilling to specify what Harper did to set him off, unwilling to use the incident as an excuse for what happened on the mound in the ninth, when he allowed a go-ahead two-run homer to Phillies second baseman Andres Blanco, walked two and was pulled before finishing the inning.
That brings up the question of Papelbon’s impact on the field, which has not been to push the Nationals deep into the playoffs — though that is certainly not all his fault — but rather to adopt the inconsistency of the battered bullpen he joined. Papelbon was 17 for 17 with a 1.59 ERA in 37 appearances with Philadelphia this season and had not blown a save since last September.
In 22 games with the Nationals, he is 7 for 9 in save opportunities with two losses. The Nationals were 52-46 when they added Papelbon and are 27-30 since. On Sunday, two months into his Nationals tenure, two months after being booed out of Philadelphia, he walked off the field to boos in Washington.
“It’s just frustration, and I get that,” Papelbon said of the fans’ displeasure. “I’ve been frustrated, and I’ve been happy. It’s part of the whole season, like I was telling you guys earlier. Everything’s not going to be perfect all the time.”
Nothing that has happened to these Nationals during the past two months has approached “perfect.” For example, the originally planned one-two, late-inning punch of Storen and Papelbon materialized in eight games the Nationals won. Storen got the hold and Papelbon the save four times.
What effect did Papelbon’s arrival have on Storen? Well, that’s impossible to say for sure, although his numbers say this: Storen allowed seven earned runs in four months before Papelbon arrived and bumped him from the closer’s spot to the eighth inning. Storen then allowed 14 runs in about six weeks, slammed his locker door in frustration, broke his thumb and is likely out for the season. He may not return next season, a potential trade candidate disgruntled by the Nationals’ decision to bump him from his preferred closer’s role in the midst of an all-star-caliber season.
So the Nationals planned for Papelbon to be their closer for next season and agreed to pay him $11 million for 2016. A Nationals spokesman said General Manager Mike Rizzo was not available for comment after the game, so there is no indication what effect Sunday’s incident might have on his future.
Harper was reluctant to talk about the incident at all, determinedly answering nearly every question with variations of “I’m just worried about the next six games of the year.” (He said is scheduled to be off Monday). Eventually, he relented enough for this:
“He apologized, so whatever. I really don’t care,” Harper said. “It’s like brothers fighting. That’s what happened. And hopefully move forward and do what I can for the next six days to have fun and play the game.”