- The Washington Times - Monday, September 28, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Washington’s final contest at Nationals Park this year was a make-up game.

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough to provide a passing grade on the Nationals’ season.

The final test, the season-ending series next weekend in New York, has gone from worthwhile to worthless. Snapping a six-game losing streak against the Mets would offer no solace whatsoever, serving only as a grim reminder of what woulda-coulda-shoulda.

At least we’ll no longer hear the auto-play responses from manager Matt Williams, a nice man whose tune didn’t change even after the Nats were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

“We’ve got games to play,” he told reporters Saturday. “We’ve got to win tomorrow.”

They didn’t. The Nationals not only lost the next day, they subjected themselves to more ridicule and mockery nationally when their Jonathan-come-lately attacked the homegrown star and presumptive NL MVP.

There are scenarios where we might understand a lunging Jonathan Papelbon wrapping a hand around Bryce Harper’s throat and slamming him against the dugout wall — but not many.

If Harper was trying to make time with Papelbon’s wife or harm their children, OK. If a practical joke went too far by involving food and bodily fluids, sure. If Harper stole Papelbon’s life savings and disparaged his mother, go for it.

But for not running hard enough (in Pap’s opinion) on a fly ball in the bottom of the eighth? No.

Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond could have challenged Harper for not hustling and it wouldn’t be a big deal. They have sufficient tenure in the majors and with the Nationals to function as team police. Papelbon has 10-plus seasons in the majors, but he’s a closer who’s been in Washington for just two months.

Here he is throwing a fit before he even fit in.

Considering the notoriety he brought to town, Papelbon should’ve been his best behavior at least until spring training. Instead, he revealed himself as the clubhouse canker sore that infected the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox.

He clearly took exception to Harper’s comments Wednesday night after Papelbon hit the Baltimore Orioles’ Manny Machado with a pitch, apparently punishment for prolonged admiration of an earlier home run.

“I mean, Manny freaking hit a homer, walked it off and somebody drilled him,” Harper told reporters, everybody knowing “somebody” was Papelbon. “I mean, it’s pretty tired. It’s one of those situations where it happens and, I don’t know, I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow.”

None of the Baltimore pitchers drilled Harper the next game, but Williams knocked him down Sunday, by allowing Papelbon to stay in the game after the attack, and Monday, by assigning a portion of blame to the victim. Incredibly, the manager said Harper was out of the lineup against the Cincinnati Reds “for his part in the altercation.”

Harper definitely chirped back once the pitcher went in on him, but the incident was just a verbal spat until Papelbon went for the close on Harper’s windpipe. The veteran should’ve walked away, and I suppose the 22-year-old could’ve done the same, but what could Harper do to avoid what happened?

“Well, I don’t know,” Williams told reporters prior to Monday’s game. “I don’t know what he could have done differently, but he was involved in it.”

We can figure out the rationale for letting Papelbon absorb a beating (five runs, two earned) in the ninth inning. That was payback. However, he never should’ve returned to the mound in the first place. Williams let that happen because he didn’t know the extent of what happened.

“Looking at it briefly out of the corner of my initially, it was very quick,” he said. “I didn’t get a chance to see the full altercation until after. He would not have gone out for the ninth inning” if Williams knew then what he saw later.

The incident gave the nation another opportunity to laugh at Nationals, who have become both punch line and punching bag. From “Operation Shutdown,” to Harper twice being voted “Most Overrated” by his peers (including this year), to epic postseason collapses and now missing the playoffs for the second time in three seasons, Washington is establishing an undesirable reputation in baseball.

Unwanted, but not totally undeserved.

It’s not all Williams‘ fault, but that’s beside the point. Someone has to pay for this disappointing season, and I don’t think general manager Mike Rizzo is going to fire himself. The dugout flare-up should snuff out the flickering chance that Williams might return next year.

Papelbon won’t be missed if he’s elsewhere, too. His arrival coincided with the club’s fall from first place to fiasco.

The entire team will have a new look next season.

But there’s no making up for this year.


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