As July neared its close and the Washington Nationals tried to cling to their spot atop the National League East, General Manager Mike Rizzo manned his iPhone at all hours. The Nationals were in Miami for an off day before three games against the Marlins. Rizzo’s top choices as trade targets were two of the best closers in the game, Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman and San Diego’s Craig Kimbrel.
Yet as Rizzo went back and forth with those two clubs, it quickly became obvious that the cost for either would be too much. “We’ve made it clear to teams that we’ve talked to,” Rizzo said, “that there are certain guys that we’re not going to talk about.”
The Nationals wouldn’t trade pitcher Lucas Giolito, one of the top pitching prospects in the game. They wouldn’t trade shortstop Trea Turner, who they thought might be the replacement for incumbent Ian Desmond someday. The Reds and Padres each wanted two of the Nationals’ top five prospects. Rizzo moved on.
To fans, the Nationals’ primary need appeared to be a setup man. Drew Storen, the incumbent closer, had a 1.36 ERA since the beginning of the 2014 season and seemed to have found himself. Some Nationals officials, though, were scarred by the two most devastating losses in team history, both involving Storen: Game 5 of the 2012 division series against the Cardinals, in which the Nationals were one strike away; and Game 2 of the 2014 division series against the Giants, in which Storen allowed the tying run after relieving Jordan Zimmermann with two outs in the ninth — and Washington lost in 18 innings.
So Rizzo’s mind was made up: closer. He couldn’t add money in the middle of the season, an edict of ownership. The Lerner family approved the sixth-highest payroll in the game, some $164 million, but wouldn’t spend more for a playoff push. Rizzo thus began talks with the rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies about Jonathan Papelbon.
“Tough as nails,” Rizzo said of Papelbon, who had won the 2007 World Series with the Boston Red Sox.
When Storen first saw Papelbon’s name pop up in rumors, he was rattled. He had saved 29 of his 31 opportunities. His own team needed a closer?
By July 28, with the Nationals facing the Marlins that night, the talks were serious enough that the Phillies had informed Papelbon, who needed to waive a no-trade clause. But Papelbon wouldn’t approve a deal to a team for which he would not close. He texted Storen, saying he wanted it to work out. Rizzo met with Storen. He needed the Phillies to eat the remaining $4.5 million on Papelbon’s contract for 2015. He needed, too, to lower Papelbon’s salary for 2016, which was to be guaranteed at $13 million if Papelbon finished 14 more games this season — a near certainty.
When the deal — which sent a minor league pitcher to Philadelphia and put Papelbon’s guarantee for 2016 at $11 million — was completed that afternoon, players in the Nationals’ clubhouse were floored. Some had come up through the minors with Storen, had watched as the club signed veteran Rafael Soriano to replace him for 2013, then applauded when Storen won the closer’s job back late in 2014. Papelbon had been an opponent and an irritating one at that. Matt Williams, the manager, met with Storen.
“At the end of the day, we’re all at the same end of the rope, and we’re trying to win ballgames,” Williams said on MLB Network Radio the next morning. “That’s his attitude anyway. That’s what he told us. ‘Listen, I’ll go get three outs. If you need me to get more outs, I’ll get more outs. I owe it to my teammates, I owe it to the organization to be as good as I can be.’ So that’s a healthy positive attitude that he’s got for sure.”
That, though, didn’t represent the entirety of the situation. Storen is one of the most available, accessible and loquacious Nationals, but his most emphatic response to any question in his tenure in Washington may have come that night in Miami when reporters asked about the move — not in what was said but in what was left unsaid.
“All I’m going to say is obviously I’m aware of the move,” Storen said. “Talked to Mike about it. Talked to my agent. We’ve had some ongoing discussions. Until those have progressed, I’m just going to leave it at that.”
The clubhouse, though, couldn’t leave it at that. Several players approached Papelbon’s addition warily. They knew his talent and accomplishments, but they also knew his temper. Baseball players can be catty, and reputations circulate through clubhouses. Papelbon’s was for competing and combustibility. He had been suspended for seven games for directing an obscene gesture at booing Phillies fans. When the Phillies struggled, he demanded a trade.
“We did our homework and due diligence,” Rizzo said. “We’re comfortable with the deal.”
The 2015 Nationals, World Series favorites when the season began, believed to a man they hadn’t played their best baseball of the season. Into this mix stepped an outsider, replacing one of their own.
“There is a sense of sympathy toward his situation and toward him,” veteran outfielder Jayson Werth said of Storen. “He’s a professional. He’s been through it before. He knows how to handle it. He says all the right things. You know those things are hard — they’d be hard on anybody, so you do feel for him in that regard. You know what it could potentially mean for career earnings and all these things. There’s that aspect to it.
“And then there’s the aspect to it that Pap makes our team better.”
On July 30, Max Scherzer threw seven scoreless innings against the Marlins. The Nationals took a 1-0 lead and handed the ball, for the first time all year with a lead in the eighth, to Storen. He struck out J.T. Realmuto. He struck out Cole Gillespie. He got Dee Gordon to ground out weakly. He needed 10 pitches for a 1-2-3 inning. Papelbon needed just nine pitches for his own 1-2-3 ninth.
The Nationals flew to New York for what was a crucial series for the second-place Mets, who on that very day blew a 7-1 lead to San Diego and lost. The Mets had scored fewer runs than any team in baseball. The Nats had a three-game lead in the division. But they had more: a new back-of-the-bullpen formula and a new clubhouse chemistry.
“Hopefully,” Scherzer said, “we get to watch them pitch a lot more.”
Physical, mental struggle
When the Nationals arrived in New York, Ian Desmond was hitting .217. In 92 games, he had driven in 32 runs and struck out 116 times. The slow start that his entire team expected him to shake off had instead festered.
“He puts a lot of pressure on himself,” said bench coach Randy Knorr, who managed Desmond up through the Nationals’ minor league chain. “He wants to be great. And as much as no one wants to say it, being a free agent puts a lot of pressure on him.”
By that point, with two months of the season to go, there was pressure on several pieces of what had long been considered the Nationals’ core, the group of veterans who had helped make Washington the winningest team in the game the past three seasons and the odds-on World Series favorites in 2015.
"What would you say the core is?" Desmond asked one day. Well, Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann and Ryan Zimmerman and . . .
“Yeah, but this is no knock against Zim, but he hasn’t played as much,” Desmond said. “He played third, then he got hurt. Played first, got hurt. So those repetitions haven’t really been there. You take other people. Wilson [Ramos, the catcher] missed a year with knee surgery. Jayson has missed time. And that core hardly got on the field together enough to where I don’t think that those repetitions were there.”
Indeed, of the eight regular positions, Desmond was the only player who manned the same one for the 2012 and 2014 division champs and still held his spot this summer. And the repetitions were never there for the 2015 Nationals. When they arrived to face the Mets, Anthony Rendon had been back from his strained quadriceps injury for just four games and didn’t have a homer all season. Werth, out for more than two months with a broken wrist, came back in Miami, as did Zimmerman, out seven weeks with a foot problem. Werth was hitting .209, Zimmerman .216. Center fielder Denard Span joined the team in New York, but back problems still kept him out of the lineup.
“These guys that are getting back,” Rizzo said, “they’re going through spring training right now.”
That was the physical struggle of the season. But Papelbon’s arrival reemphasized a mental struggle for some players — starting with Storen, who was most directly affected. When the Nationals arrived at the New York Palace hotel in Manhattan, Storen and his agent met with Rizzo. They wanted the Nationals to alleviate concerns that the club no longer believed in their erstwhile closer.
Storen, though, had little recourse. He was under contract, in his fifth full major league season and therefore subject to the arbitration system, in which annual salaries are determined by looking at players with comparable service time and performance. Storen was making $5.7 million in 2015 and had one more year of eligibility for arbitration before he would be eligible for free agency — unless he and the Nats could come to agreement on a long-term deal before that.
This process mirrored what other prominent Nationals had faced in previous years. Desmond and Zimmermann would be free agents because each turned down offers of extensions their representatives and the players’ union deemed below market value. When the Nationals arrived at Citi Field, Tyler Clippard, Washington’s all-time leader in appearances for a pitcher, was dressing in the Mets’ clubhouse. Clippard had been acquired earlier in the week from Oakland, where the Nationals sent him in a deal for Yunel Escobar.
To that point, other than Bryce Harper, Escobar had been the Nationals’ most consistent hitter. But inside the Washington clubhouse, the Clippard trade still resonated, a point further emphasized because the Nationals would be competing against their old teammate in a pennant race. Several Nationals couldn’t rectify the idea that the club had traded away Clippard, a reliable eighth-inning pitcher, in part because he was going to make $8.3 million in his final year of arbitration. These players, speaking on the condition of anonymity, believed the financial part of that decision didn’t marry well with the seven-year, $210 million contract given to Scherzer. Now here came Papelbon, who would be guaranteed $11 million for 2016.
“We thought we were building a clubhouse here with players who were going to do things the Nationals Way,” one player said. “But then they don’t keep some of those guys, and they bring in others who haven’t come up that way. What does that teach you? How does that breed loyalty?”
The only homegrown National who had signed a long-term contract extension was Zimmerman, who did it twice. So as the season wore on, impending free agency issues swirled. Right-hander Doug Fister had a 4.39 ERA when he arrived in New York and would be out of the rotation within a week, severely impacting his marketability. Span was hurt, and he couldn’t head to free agency as an injured player; he had to figure out a way to present himself as healthy and reliable. Zimmermann was chasing his own contract.
And Desmond, as Knorr said, felt the pressure. Impending free agency is rarely discussed between players and coaches. But Desmond and Knorr had a deep history. “He’s not quite like my dad,” Desmond said. “But he’s more than an uncle.” One day they played golf together. On the fourth or fifth hole, Desmond asked, “You think I screwed up?”
“What?” Knorr said.
“Not signing that contract,” Desmond said.
They talked for a few holes, laughed, then let it just hang in the air. One night, late after a game as the Nationals and Desmond struggled, the shortstop sat in the training room and saw Knorr walk by. Desperate for advice, Desmond called out, "Tell me something — and don't tell me I'm gonna be okay." So Knorr came with the only advice he could: "Stop swinging so . . . hard. You can't hit like that. How can you focus on the ball when you swing that hard?"
How off-the-field issues manifest themselves on the field is impossible to quantify. What was inescapable: The Nats had three straight games against the Mets. Win one, and they would leave New York in first place. Win two, and their lead would grow.
Questionable relief choices
As the clubs gathered at Citi Field on July 31, the trade deadline loomed: 4 p.m. Thirteen minutes before the dealing season ended, the Mets agreed to send a package of prospects to Detroit for outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. That night, though, the Nationals faced a lineup in which only one Met, catcher Travis d’Arnaud, was hitting above .275. Washington starter Gio Gonzalez was at his inefficient worst, needing 105 pitches to get 14 outs, walking four men, before Williams came to get him with runners on second and third and two outs in the fifth inning of a game the Nats trailed 1-0.
Thus, it was left to the bullpen to put the Nationals in position to take the series opener. The box score showed that the relievers did their job: seven outs without a base runner from Tanner Roark, six outs from Aaron Barrett with only one hit. With the game tied at 1, Williams turned it over to hard-throwing lefty Felipe Rivero, a rookie, for the 10th and 11th.
“This is the wear-and-tear time for bullpen guys,” Storen said. “The scouting report’s out. They know what you’re trying to do. And you’re probably not feeling as good as you were at the beginning of the year. You’re eventually gonna hit that wall. And it’s how you get through it being able to still pitch confidently even though you might not be feeling the best.”
That afternoon, veteran reliever Casey Janssen came down with a neck issue during warmups, and he wasn’t available. Veteran lefty Matt Thornton, though, hadn’t appeared in a game in five days. He was ready. Williams got Thornton up once to warm up but didn’t use him. He got him up again but still didn’t call on him. As the game wore on, Thornton warmed up a third time, then a fourth time. By the time Wilmer Flores led off the 12th with a homer off Rivero, good for a 2-1 Mets win, Thornton had thrown in the bullpen five times.
“Never seen it before,” one Washington reliever said.
For relievers, warming up without being used has an impact that is at once nebulous and undeniable. Its practice is unavoidable but worthy of close monitoring. Relievers, all aware of their own circumstances, obsess about it. “Getting up twice and not pitching,” one Nationals reliever said, “that’s worse than getting into a game.” Other relievers said there are a slew of factors — bullpen pitches thrown before sitting down, time off in between throwing sessions, on and on — that contribute to the level of wear and tear.
“When you lose or you don’t do your job, obviously everyone’s looking to point a finger somewhere,” Barrett said. “That’s just kind of the nature of the beast.”
Either way, by the Mets series, both the construction of the Nationals’ bullpen — with Papelbon as the new addition — and Williams’s use of it were worthy of scrutiny. In the seventh inning of the second game of the Mets series, Williams allowed rookie right-hander Joe Ross to hit for himself, setting him up to face left-handed hitter Lucas Duda to lead off the bottom of the inning. Duda had already homered once off Ross, giving him seven homers in seven games. When he hit another shot off Ross to open the seventh, the Mets had pulled into a 2-2 tie.
This kind of errant strategy had baffled the Nationals all season and longer, dating to Williams’s mishandling of the bullpen in Game 4 of the National League Division Series loss to the San Francisco Giants the previous October, a game in which neither Storen nor Clippard nor Stephen Strasburg, available for relief work, appeared. With each perceived misstep, Williams’s own players drew their microscope on him.
“The first time he does something odd, you’re like, ‘All right, I see. I get it. I’m with you,’ ” one Nationals veteran said. “The next time you’re like, ‘Ooookay. All right. I’m trying to get it. Yeah.’ And then when it keeps happening, guys are watching him like, ‘Well, here comes this guy again.’ ”
In the eighth inning against the Mets, Williams lined up Thornton, the left-hander, to face the left-handed hitting Curtis Granderson, who was leading off. Here was the by-the-book move. Granderson, though, doubled. After an out, Williams ordered Thornton to intentionally walk Cespedes, a right-handed hitter who had extreme “reverse splits” — meaning he hit righties better than lefties — .314 against right-handers, .219 against lefties thus far in 2015. That brought up Duda, who crushed Thornton’s 1-2 pitch to left-center, breaking the tie, providing the Mets with the winning run.
“My job there is to execute the pitch,” Thornton said. “I couldn’t do that, and we lost.”
The Nationals relievers, though, believed there was more to it than that. They believed the five times Thornton got up the previous night affected his ability to execute the pitch to Granderson, the pitch to Duda.
By the end of the weekend, the Mets had won three games, were tied for first place — and believed in themselves. The Nationals still believed they would win the division, but they believed something else, too: Their manager had contributed to the sweep.
Lack of communication
By the morning of Aug. 22, a Saturday, the Nationals had lost 15 of their previous 21 games, sat five games behind the Mets in the standings, and — with 60 wins and 61 losses — were a losing team with a quarter of the season to go. They were almost all healthy for the first time all year, with Werth back from his broken wrist, Rendon back from his quad strain, Zimmerman back from his plantar fasciitis and Strasburg back from his strained oblique. They should have been rolling. They were reeling.
A crucial homestand began with a listless, 10-3 loss to last-place Milwaukee. On that Saturday morning, Werth arrived at the ballpark and looked at the lineup card posted on a bulletin board that hangs on the wall just outside the main clubhouse. Clint Robinson was penciled into left field, where Werth plays. Rendon was penciled into the leadoff spot, where Werth had been hitting. Werth’s name wasn’t on it.
Throughout the season, when everyday players are going to get a day off, the manager typically finds a way to get the message to a player the night before. The player then can do with that information whatever he wants — get in a more rigorous weightlifting session that night, arrive at the ballpark a little later the next day, whatever. More importantly, a player with a day off can mentally decompress and, for once, relax.
According to individuals with direct knowledge of the situation, Werth hadn’t received such a message from Williams. This wasn’t the first time, and Werth wasn’t the first veteran to experience what players considered an oversight once, an egregious error beyond that.
What might have been a minor blip in a successful season became a boiling point. Incensed, Werth ripped the lineup card off the wall, bellowing that it was going to change. Then, according to several people who were present, he confronted Williams — not just about whether he would play that day but about what most of the clubhouse considered to be a chronic lack of communication with his players. Among the most jarring barbs, from Werth to Williams: “When exactly do you think you lost this team?”
The incident was the most visible and vocal in a summer that had devolved into chaos. From the players’ point of view, there were several problems with Williams and his leadership; communication was at the forefront. “He doesn’t talk to people in here,” one veteran said late in the year. This manifested itself in ways large and small, and many of the would-be problems ran through Knorr, the bench coach. Such a structure is typical in a major league clubhouse, with a coach used as a sounding board, a go-between, so that little problems don’t get to the manager, that the manager is only presented with major issues.
But even this normal flow of information became strained.
“When Danny Espinosa doesn’t play, he’s horrible to be around,” Knorr said. “So I try to keep him away from the skipper. Danny’ll tell me things, and I’ll go to tell [Williams], and he’ll go, ‘Why doesn’t Danny come tell me?’ ‘Well, you don’t want to talk to Danny right now.’ ”
Espinosa’s case illustrated the disconnect between the manager and his players. When Rendon returned from his first injury in early June, Espinosa was in the midst of reviving his career. He had filled in at second and at third and for a few innings at short and would end up playing first base and even left field for the first time in his career. Yet when the Nationals had their full complement of infielders, Espinosa had no spot.
Williams initially told Espinosa that he would do his best to work him into the starting lineup two or three times every 10 games. But between July 26 and Aug. 5, Espinosa played two innings and pinch-ran once. Between Aug. 8 and Aug. 18, he started once and pinch-hit five times.
“I don’t care what anybody says,” Espinosa said one day in this stretch, head down, sitting in front of his locker. “There’s nothing you can really do if you’re not playing. You can say, ‘I’ll take as many swings as I want in the cages,’ and that can be counterproductive. You try to stay with your routine, not do more than what you were doing. And hopefully when you get in the game and you see 95 [mph], it doesn’t look like 105.”
Privately, Espinosa seethed. But people familiar with the situation said Espinosa’s frustration wasn’t entirely because he wasn’t in the lineup every day. It was because Williams didn’t follow through on his plan to find time for him occasionally — and then never communicated why.
This, those familiar with the circumstances said, was typical, and it ate at the clubhouse culture. When Werth confronted Williams, he asked about communication issues. Williams denied there was a problem.
“He’s like the guy in his house who hears a sound, like someone breaking in,” one player said. “And his reaction isn’t to take care of the problem or investigate. It’s to put his head under the pillow and hope it goes away.”
Whatever the frustration pulsing through the clubhouse that morning, part of Werth’s argument worked. When a new lineup card was posted to the bulletin board, Werth’s name was at the top, playing left field.
Bullpen fails against Mets
By the time the Nationals woke on Labor Day, hope still lived. They had won five straight games to whittle what had been a 61/2-game lead for the Mets down to four. They had put behind two disastrous losses in St. Louis and swept the inept Atlanta Braves at home. And here came the Mets.
By that point, the Nationals were as healthy as they were going to get. Span returned in late August and played two games — the only games Washington played all year with its full lineup — before he went back down with a bad left hip, an injury that required surgery. But even after a 12-17 August, even after the Mets had become one of the best stories in baseball, the Nationals were right there, with a chance.
"You don't change your thinking or your approach until you've been eliminated," Werth said. "You're so caught up in this zombie mentality. Every day you wake up, you've got blinders on, tunnel vision: I've got one job to do. You've got monsters going in your head. Those are every day, regardless of the highs and lows. You try and keep those at bay. It's been my experience that that doesn't change until it's over. Then you're like, 'Holy . . . What just happened?'"
That, then, was exactly the sentiment by the time the Mets left Washington. What happened? In the opener, the Nationals staked Scherzer to a 5-3 lead. He couldn’t hold it, and then four relievers allowed three runs in the seventh. The Nats lost.
The next night, they took a 7-1 lead on New York ace Matt Harvey — and then suffered the worst inning of the year. With two outs and one on in the seventh, Blake Treinen couldn’t get the last out. Rivero couldn’t get any outs, walking the only two men he faced. And Storen couldn’t get the last out before he allowed a three-run double to Cespedes — then walked three men in a row, the last forcing in the tying run.
By the time Escobar hit into a game-ending double play, and Mets third baseman David Wright danced across the Nationals Park infield, Papelbon had given up the game-winning homer to pinch hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis. The home clubhouse was silent afterward.
“Stings,” Zimmerman said. “It’s not so much because of the loss. It’s more because of the opportunity you missed. You understand the situation. You have to win games, obviously, against the team you’re chasing. You just have to win games that you’re ahead, win games that you’re supposed to win. And we didn’t do that.”
Here the focus fell squarely on the players. As one front-office member said, “Get a [expletive] out. One [expletive] out!” The next night, as if for emphasis, Strasburg allowed a tying homer to Kelly Johnson in the eighth, then a one-out single. Here came Storen.
When Cespedes drilled Storen’s 1-0 slider deep into the Mets’ bullpen in left field, giving the Mets the lead and the sweep, Storen stepped backward off the mound to watch. He put his right hand on his right hip, exhaled and then looked down. He was replaced by Papelbon for the ninth, just as he had been replaced by Papelbon as the closer. Four appearances after the trade, Storen’s ERA had fallen to 1.52. In 15 appearances after that, he posted a 9.22 ERA.
“That’s the way this game is,” Storen said. “It never goes to plan.”
In the clubhouse, Storen retreated to his locker, positioned just outside the players’ lunch room. The television showed the broadcast of the game. When Washington’s Matt den Dekker flew out to end it, Storen stood up, reached for his phone in his locker, then slammed the lock box shut. He caught his right thumb on a piece of metal. As he headed home for an off day, it throbbed. He took the team flight to Miami. He went to the ballpark the next day to throw. And he couldn’t. He had fractured his thumb.
One last indignity?
“You take a step back,” Werth said, “and say, ‘Man. Where did it all go wrong?’ ”
By the final homestand of the season, there didn’t appear to be much more that could go wrong. Except on Sept. 23, Scherzer allowed a two-run homer to Baltimore’s Manny Machado, flipping the lead from the Nats to the Orioles in the seventh inning. When Machado came up in the ninth, he faced Papelbon, whose first pitch sailed up and in. When his third pitch did the same, it missed Machado’s head only because Machado blocked it with his left shoulder.
Machado flung his bat in disgust. Papelbon was immediately ejected. But two telling things happened next: First, as the Orioles hopped over the dugout rail and assembled as one along the third base line, the Nationals’ fielders wandered in from their positions. None of the outfielders made it to the infield dirt. All four infielders ambled about, leaving Williams to argue with home plate umpire Mark Ripperger, Papelbon to go at it with umpire Alan Porter.
Second, Orioles Manager Buck Showalter charged out of the dugout and got to Machado quickly. He then stood, arms folded and glaring, in front of Machado at first base. The message was clear: Want to get to my player? You have to go through me.
“You think that would have happened here?” one veteran National said. “No chance.”
Afterward, Harper was pointed in his comments about Papelbon. “It’s pretty tired,” he said.
That was the season, by then: tired. The final act involved those two, Papelbon and Harper, on Sunday. No scene could have been more unimaginable in spring training than the team's new closer taunting Harper, at the end of a historic offensive season, for not enthusiastically running out a fly ball, then Harper saying, "Let's . . . go!" and Papelbon lunging at him, putting his hand around Harper's throat.
Scenes of the fight in Nationals dugout between Harper and Papelbon
When the pair was separated, Harper walked to the end of the dugout. “I’m done,” he said and headed back up the tunnel into the home clubhouse. As he did, he strode past two inspirational quotes painted in white on the green wall: “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first time, I owe him my best,” from Joe DiMaggio; and “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence,” from Vince Lombardi. The summer of 2015 was over for the Washington Nationals, one and all.
More on the Nationals from Barry Svrluga:
Destiny Denied: The rise and fall of the 2015 Nationals