The mess that is the Nationals


Jonathan Papelbon’s season ended early this week and the Washington Nationals’ will terminate this weekend, neither the fault of Bryce Harper.

The latter is the presumptive MVP of the National League, though perhaps not unanimous if Papelbon had a vote instead of a chokehold on Harper’s neck. Apparently, Papelbon is the kind of voter who  couldn’t wait to check off David Eckstein. Who needs production when you can have perception? Presumably, it’s been OK  with Papelbon that Harper has jogged on his 41 home runs.

Of course, that was really a changeup to Papelbon’s real grievance, which went back a few days earlier to the Orioles’ Manny Machado homering, Papelbon hitting Macahado with a pitch and Harper saying, “I mean, Manny freaking hit a homer. Walked it off, and somebody drilled him. 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.”

Harper was prophetic that he would get drilled, except he didn’t know it would take a few days and it was his own teammate who would do it. 

You can understand Papelbon’s anger, even if he was wrong to plunk Machado. That kind of lack of support in Washington from a teammate hasn’t been seen since 1972, when George McGovern said he backed his vice-presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton, “1,000 percent,” then dropped him before  the week was done.

And you can understand Harper’s frustration, too, even before the altercation in the dugout. If the Orioles were to retaliate, they’d have to wait a long time till Papelbon was in the batter’s box. And if they didn’t wait, does anyone think the Orioles would plunk Harper? Or Michael Taylor?

Give Papelbon credit for this much: he gave Washington what it always demands — a better scapegoat. And manager Matt Williams should thank him.

 The Nationals are the most disappointing team in MLB of 2015, not even making the playoffs after winning 96 games in 2014 and adding Max Scherzer in the offseason. If they were a political candidate, they’d be Hillary Clinton, starting the campaign with all the advantages and resources of the powerful but finishing it with record unfavorables.

Entering play Friday, the Nats haven’t secured a winning record for the season, which even the Astros have, which is like Hillary getting outpolled by Martin O’Malley. The underdog Mets, playing the role of Bernie Sanders, have created a movement that won the division. You can be sure the Nats will feel that burn all winter long.

Most of the blame has fallen on Williams, and a Washington Post story that week said Williams had “lost the clubhouse.” How? In a poker game?

Williams may indeed be a poor manager, but the story was mostly full of anonymous sources and sounded more like underperforming veterans covering up their own failings. It’s far easier and believable  for 24 failing players to blame one manager than vice versa. Even if they’re both right.

The Papelbon-Harper showdown and the Nats’ failues have been much written about for the same reason we drive slowly by and gawk at traffic accidents: someone else’s distress is fascinating. And 29 other teams are glad it’s not theirs.

The Nats built a team that was short in the bullpen because it was long on starters and wound up deficient in both. The Nats supplied a bench so shallow they employed Dan Uggla all season because who would need it with such a start-studded lineup? Sure enough, half their  starters spent long chunks of the season on the disabled list. Not surprisingly, Uggla and his .557 OPS weren’t much help. Harper’s MVP season is the only thing that kept the Nats from losing 90.

It’s baseball tradition that the batted ball will find the weakest link in the field, but it’s also true that the six-month season will almost always reveal it, as it did to the Nats. Matt Williams may have been a better player than he is a manager, but he started this season with an 0-2 count.

Papelbon said he was wrong last Sunday, and that his fight  with Harper  was like a battle of brothers. That makes you wonder what kind of family he grew up in.

A year ago Papelbon was suspended in the season’s final month for grabbing his crotch in a gesture to Phillies fans. Maybe next September he’ll learn to keep his hands in his pockets. 

Papelbon was never likeable, but he was less hateful when he was only choking ninth-inning leads for the Red Sox (see 2011) instead of teammates.

Harper kept repeating the mantra last Sunday  that there were six games (now three) left in the season, but he sounded as if he were a disinterested student counting down the minutes on another dull school day. He’s 1-for-10 since. Want to bet who’s the first National to clear out his locker after the final out on Sunday?

Given his performance in 2015, Harper is entitled to make any kind of exit he wants. Most of the other Nats, including GM Mike Rizzo, shouldn’t be allowed to get away so easily.

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