- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 29, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

However mad Jonathan Papelbon may appear to have been since he joined the Washington Nationals, there has been a method to it.

However insane he was to provoke a dugout brawl with Bryce Harper, and however foolish he was to plunk Manny Machado last week in the series against the Baltimore Orioles, he was trying to accomplish something.

When he arrived in the Nationals’ clubhouse at the end of July following the trade from the Philadelphia Phillies, Papelbon looked around and saw the same thing that San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Hudson saw before the National League Division Series last fall.

“Obviously, they have a talented group over there, there’s no question,” Hudson told reporters.”They have some great pitching. But, come playoff time, talent can take you a long ways, but what do you have between your legs?”

That is the reputation of the Nationals throughout baseball — they aren’t very tough. The prevailing thought is there is not a lot of fire there, not a lot of nerve in that clubhouse — and that was certainly on display this season during the team’s failure to catch the New York Mets in the final weeks of the season.

That is the problem for this franchise moving forward. It’s not the front office, and however poorly manager Matt Williams handled a bad bullpen, he’s not the problem either.

It’s the players, and, like Hudson said, what is between their legs.

Papelbon saw that, and, in his own misguided, foolish way, tried to do something about it when he thought Harper didn’t run hard enough on a pop-up in Sunday’s loss to Philadelphia. Despite the outrage throughout the Western world, some within the Nationals organization respect Papelbon and what he was trying to do.

“You don’t hear a lot of players here complaining about him, do you?” a source within the organization said after the new closer went after the biggest star on the team — this year’s National League Most Valuable Player. “He is respected in the clubhouse.”

Maybe you don’t have to be tough — at least the baseball version of tough — when you have the talent the Nationals have, the sort of talent that can carry you to a 96-win season last year and the NL East division title. But it came into play during last year’s NLDS, when the Giants bench-jockeyed the Nationals, questioning their toughness, and it may have been the missing ingredient when this team had to battle back to win the division this year.

It is a culture issue. It may be a stupid culture issue, but it is the players’ culture issue — and, according to former major league pitcher C.J. Nitkowski, now a columnist for Fox Sports, Papelbon had the backing of every player he heard from:

“Right intentions, horrible timing by Pap.”

“I would have done the same thing if I were Papelbon.”

“I am perfectly OK with Pap’s reaction. I can understand some people having a problem with the timing. At the same time, this guy is the MVP.”

Nitkowski nailed it when he wrote about the situation.

Papelbon thought he was making friends last week when he took it upon himself to hit Manny Machado with a fastball in a game where Machado had homered earlier,” the former reliever wrote. “The assumption is that Papelbon thought Machado admired his home run too long and was due a high-and-tight fastball. … Papelbon thought he endeared himself to his teammates by doing what he thought was right. But he didn’t, at least not to one teammate in particular” — referring to Harper saying after the game that the actions were “pretty tired.”

Harper is free to disagree with Papelbon; the mistake came in airing his grievance to the media,” Nitkowski wrote. “That’s a conversation that happens between teammates, not in front of a microphone and a camera. You can bet Papelbon, at 34 years old with 11 major-league seasons under his belt, didn’t take too kindly to the 22-year-old Harper’s comments. The line was drawn by Harper: Calling out teammates publicly is OK.”

All this may seem stupid to outsiders, and old school baseball foolishness. And Papelbon — a newcomer and relief pitcher who has struggled since coming to the Nationals — may not have much standing in policing the Nationals’ clubhouse.

But he was just delivering the message that others throughout the game believe — the Nationals are missing something.

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.


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