The Washington Nationals suspended pitcher Jonathan Papelbon four games without pay for his role in Sunday’s dugout altercation, during which he grabbed star Bryce Harper’s neck. Coupled with a three-game suspension from Major League Baseball for an unrelated incident, Papelbon will not pitch again for the Nationals this season.
“We hold our players at a high standard,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said after the Nationals ended their final home game of the season with a 5-1 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. “What happened in the incident in the dugout was unacceptable, and we acted accordingly.”
Papelbon’s discipline — worked out by Rizzo, Manager Matt Williams and team ownership — will not quell concerns about his behavior and his effect on the Nationals’ clubhouse. The Nationals, who were eliminated from playoff contention Saturday, acquired the closer July 28 from the Philadelphia Phillies despite a history of checkered behavior. How Papelbon, who is owed $11 million next season, and Harper, the Nationals’ cornerstone, will co-exist remains to be seen.
“He’s under contract,” Rizzo said when asked whether Papelbon will pitch for the Nationals in 2016. “We’re going to evaluate every moving part that we have after the season, and we’ll make all those decisions once the final out is made in 2015.”
Rizzo also said he thinks “for the most part” the reliever has fit into “the clubhouse culture fine.”
“I’m not gonna judge his entire career by this one incident,” he added. “It was unfortunate and unacceptable, and I think the suspension says that.”
The Nationals levied a small punishment for Harper for his role in the altercation. Harper was scheduled to have a day off this week, so the Nationals held him out of the lineup, with pay, Monday.
Rizzo said he didn’t agree with Papelbon for questioning Harper’s hustle on the flyout that sparked the fight and added that he “loves the way Bryce Harper plays.” But the Nationals still punished Harper because he said something to Papelbon and fought.
“You can see by how we weighted our reactions, we felt who was more at fault than the other,” Rizzo said.
Harper watched Monday’s game from the dugout and laughed with teammates on the bench.
“I don’t want to be out of the lineup of course,” Harper said. “I just want to play the game hard, and it was unfortunate what happened [Sunday]. You don’t expect to fight your teammates or anything like that. It’s definitely we, as the Nationals, don’t pride ourselves on that. We’re a family in here and do the things we can to contribute every day.”
In Sunday’s game, Harper flied out to left field in the eighth inning, jogged to first and touched the base — the basic requirements of a hitter who hits into an out. Williams said he had no issue with that.
The way “Bryce plays the game is that he wears his emotions on his sleeve,” Williams said. “That happens every single day. If he’s upset about something, everybody can see it. That’s important for him. It’s important for him to feel that way and play that way. I think he’s the best player he can be when he does. . . . Could he have ran harder? Yes. But there’s many instances that many could during the course of the season.”
Papelbon said “run that out” to Harper as the outfielder walked toward the dugout after the flyball out, and he followed Harper to the dugout steps, still jawing to him. Harper yelled back at Papelbon, saying “let’s [expletive] go.” Papelbon then grabbed Harper’s throat, and the two wrestled near the dugout bench until teammates and two coaches pulled them apart. Papelbon later apologized to Harper.
“If you’re in a bar or in the dugout or anywhere, if someone grabs your neck, the first reaction is to do what I did,” Harper said. “It happens in the game and happens in life. Nothing I can do about it now.”
No one was hurt in the incident. After shortstop Ian Desmond pulled Harper away, the outfielder went into the clubhouse and left the game. Williams said he had hoped to remove Harper from the game mid-inning in the eighth or ninth so that fans could give him an ovation.
“I’m okay,” Harper said. “Playing in front of these fans has been a lot of fun for me, and I’ve got three more years to play here and hopefully a lot longer.”
Williams also admitted his fault in allowing Papelbon to pitch the ninth inning in the 12-5 loss. He said he knew Papelbon and Harper had been involved at the other end of the dugout but that he didn’t realize the severity of the clash until he was able to watch the videotape after he went to a fan jersey giveaway and spoke to reporters.
No coaches or players made Williams aware about the severity of the fight, Williams said, but he added that “that’s my responsibility.”
“I didn’t get all the facts at that time,” Williams said. “That lies with me.”
Added Rizzo, referring not just to Williams: “There’s plenty of mistakes to go around in the issue.”
Papelbon is not allowed to be with the Nationals during his three-game suspension for throwing at Orioles third baseman Manny Machado last week. Papelbon on Monday dropped his appeal of the suspension. During his four-game team-imposed suspension, Papelbon is also not expected to be with the Nationals, Williams said. Papelbon will be docked $284,000 during his four-game suspension.
Williams said he spoke to Papelbon after Sunday’s game but will talk to him again after the suspension. Rizzo said he spoke with Papelbon on Monday and described the conversation as “professional.” Harper, too, said he would like to speak with Papelbon face-to-face eventually.
“If Pap is gonna help us win a World Series next year, that’s what I need,” Harper said. “That’s what this whole clubhouse needs. I need to do the same thing, be in the lineup every single day. Can’t be fighting or anything like that. That’s just part of it. As much as I need him, he needs me. I attribute that us being a family in here and doing what we need to do to win World Series and that’s part of it.”