- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Looking down the dugout toward Jonathan Papelbon on Sunday afternoon, Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker noticed his closer stretching his side. Papelbon had just allowed a go-ahead home run to the Philadelphia Phillies, his former team and current nemesis. He looked uncomfortable, but Baker said he, and others, didn’t think anything of it at the time.

On Monday, Papelbon arrived at the park “crooked,” to use Baker’s word. It turned out Papelbon felt pain during a warmup pitch before his Sunday outing. That pain is a strain of his right intercostal, a muscle situated between the ribs. Papelbon was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Tuesday, retroactive to June 13.

“He couldn’t straighten out, you know something was wrong,” Baker said. “Pap is a guy that has a high tolerance for pain and certainly, this guy is one of the tough guys. We just thought that it would be better not to inject it … because you can really tear it up and he could be out for a long period of time. So, use this time to get his strength back and it will be like — when he comes back, hopefully, it will be almost like trading for a new player because he’ll be strong.”

Papelbon felt well enough to chase Jayson Werth after his game-winning single on Sunday. The two sprinted into right field to celebrate with other teammates. Baker said Papelbon’s decision to run onto the field wasn’t a wise one, but understandable.

“If you feel something, that doesn’t mean that you’re hurt,” Baker said. “If you feel something, how do you not celebrate? That was probably one of the most enjoyable games of the year. No, it probably wasn’t wise, but how often do we do unwise things?”

Right-handed reliever Matt Belisle was recalled to take Papelbon’s roster spot, though Baker did not commit to a singular solution to replace Papelbon’s position of closer. Shawn Kelley was used Monday night when Papelbon was unavailable. He has five career saves and two Tommy John surgeries in his past, which means Baker and the Nationals watch him closely. Belisle also has five career saves. Those two are the most experienced would-be closers in the bullpen.

“I don’t know yet,” Baker said of the replacement closer. “That’s the same question you guys asked me — how are we going to get our bullpen leaving spring training and what roles our guys are going to have. This is similar, except we have a little more background on left/right, who can go consecutive days, who’s better with runners inherited, who’s better with first-inning efficiency, all this goes into the equation, so … [pitching coach] Mike [Maddux] and I will put our heads together before the game and try to play out as many scenarios as you can. ‘What if this guy’s up? What if this guy’s up? Are they going to pinch hit for this or would it be with a righty a lefty?’ You’ve just got to figure that out and some of it is as we go and as the scoreboard dictates what we do.”

This is the first trip to the disabled list for Papelbon in his 12-year career. After needing some initial convincing, Papelbon came to understand having him on the disabled list instead of simply unavailable for an unknown period of time would be beneficial to the rest of the bullpen.

“I’ve taken a lot of pride on never being on the disabled list,” Papelbon said. “I think in my situation here, we’ve got to make the smart decision. It’s early in the season. There’s no reason to push anything right now, I believe. I sat down with [general manager] Mike Rizzo and Dusty last night, and [Maddux], and Mike’s been great and explained the decision, and I agree with Mike. He’s always, in my opinion, always looked out for the best for his players, and that’s what he’s doing right now.

“A lot of general managers will just say, ‘Get out there as soon as you can,’ and he’s looking at it in a different light. If it was up to me, I would probably run back out there as soon as I could, but I think this is a smart decision. And, sleeping on it last night, after listening to what Mike Rizzo told me, it was a smart decision, and it’s not about the outcome right now, it’s about the end outcome, and I want to be healthy and strong towards the end of the season.”

Papelbon is 10th all-time in saves. However, this has been one of the poorest seasons of the 35-year-old’s career. His 3.90 ERA in 2010 was the only time it was higher than the current 3.28, which is a run higher than his career ERA. Papelbon was 16-for-18 in save opportunities this season.

The Nationals entered Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Cubs with the third-best bullpen ERA in the National League, just .05 runs behind the league-leading New York Mets.


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