Papelbon and Harper: It’s Tenth Grade again


It’s a rarity, certainly, when I talk about my own life, or even in the first person on this blog. I’d like to think that I’ve avoided that well enough, as its considered good form, and that I set a personal rule for myself, that I should speak in the third person as much as I can, and avoid my own personal stories as much as I can. Here, I’ll break that rule.

This Sunday, nearly one year to the date of Jordan Zimmermann’s no hitter, Jonathan Papelbon, Bryce Harper, and the Nationals gained nationwide media attention, for all the wrong reasons. After Bryce Harper supposedly didn’t run out a fly ball, which he did, Jonathan Papelbon yelled at Harper for a lack of hustle. This is already problematic for a myriad of reasons – not only is Harper the obvious choice for MVP this season, which means that he doesn’t necessarily need to run out every fly ball, he does anyways (Jeff Passan wrote an excellent article about this here). Harper had also already played 150-plus games this season, and was starting a game that many regulars were sitting out, the day after the Nationals played a 4 hour marathon which, despite a win, was the last game they played that had playoff implications. The Nationals had been mathematically eliminated, and yet, there was Harper, playing again. Another blatant issue was Papelbon’s inconsistency. Papelbon had been passable, but certainly not shutdown. The next inning he went onto the field, he blew any shot the Nationals had at coming back, turning a 4-4 tie into a 6-4 deficit, plus putting on three runners for entering pitcher Sammy Solis. And is it truly a pitcher’s place to tell a position player when to hustle, when they spend the majority of the game on the bench or in the bullpen if they’re not starting?

Harper, for obvious reasons, was agitated. One thing led to another, and soon enough, after Papelbon told Harper he would go to physical lengths, Jonathan Papelbon had his hands around Bryce Harper’s neck. Bryce Harper turned on him, and began to fight back. He was restrained by teammates, retreated to the clubhouse, and didn’t return for the rest of the homestand, saying something along the lines of “I’m f***ing done!” to Manager Matt Williams. The Nationals might’ve been mathematically eliminated the night before, but the season truly died that afternoon in the dugout.

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In a baseball season, which many might argue to be the longest slog in sports, there are 162 games. Some of those games feel absolutely meaningless, and give no indication to a team’s future. Others feel like a summary of the season, a microcosm of the arc the team’s performance creates. Tonight’s game certainly felt like that.

In a game filled with emotional range, the Nationals were down, tied, up, down, threatening, and down again, finishing in a 5-4 loss to the beltway rival Baltimore Orioles, making it all the more tough. But it wasn’t as simple as that.

The Nationals started the game down 1-0. The offense faltered against a rookie pitcher they had never seen, and soon found themselves down 3-0 heading into the bottom of the fourth. The rookie, Tyler Wilson, made it to the bottom of the fifth. The Nationals knocked him out after posting two runs on a Wilson Ramos single, Trea Turner double, Anthony Rendon sac-fly that was inches away from being an extra base hit and a Yunel Escobar single, bringing them within striking distance. Joe Ross came in, and shut down the Orioles for two innings. In the seventh, Ramos came through yet again, blasting a towering 430 foot shot into the deep left field bleachers, tying the game. Den Dekker followed with a walk, Rendon singled and Escobar doubled to right, a seemingly fatal blow for the Orioles. Den Dekker scored easily, but as Rendon tumbled around third and into home, the throw made it to catcher Matt Wieters, who placed the tag on his left leg. The Nationals challenged, but were unsuccessful. The score had flipped, to 4-3. Bryce Harper, the ever imminent threat, was intentionally walked. This left Jayson Werth, who sent a rocket down the left field line, only to be caught by ever-taunting third baseman Manny Machado. It should’ve been enough. Let’s take a look at where we are right now. The Nationals have come back from a problematic deficit to take a small lead, with one player at the helm of the attack. Where have we seen this before?

It’s not just the story of the season, which started with an eight game deficit by late April and then moved into the Nationals opening a decent-sized but never truly commanding lead over the Mets in the division. It’s the story of only one man making the offense run, typically named Bryce Harper, although occasionally named Ryan Zimmerman. It’s the story of so many games this season, where the Nationals come back from an early deficit, whether they’re down 3-0 early in DC, facing the Mets, to come back with a grand slam and an RBI double, or a 5-3 lead in St. Louis, led by Ryan Zimmerman and multiple home runs, just, in both instances, for the bullpen to blow it.

And why would that not be fitting? Because, as soon as the eighth inning came around, Blake Treinen gave up a single and a moonshot home run to dead center, hit (ironically) by a possible free-agency target for the Nationals, catcher Matt Wieters. The bullpen had done it again. A seemingly comfortable lead had been lost. Every pitcher who sits in right field has blown at least one game this season, whether they were a culprit in the six run, one inning swing versus New York, or two straight losses in Saint Louis, or a late inning grand slam versus Colorado.

And, like the bullpen, the Nationals have blown the long-term small lead, the one that feels barely comfortable. A three game lead over New York turned into a six-and-a-half game deficit.

So, the Nationals looked for an opportunity, and it came. Clint Robinson sent a screaming double into left center field, giving the Nationals a great chance to make things as they were, and things looked up. Desmond laid down a bunt. Pinch runner Wilmer Difo was thrown out, gone by a mile. The Nationals left runners on first and second that inning, unable to come up with a hit in the clutch, lost without being able to rely on Bryce Harper, who, despite carrying the one dimensional offense all season, struggled this series.

On September 6th, 2015, the Nationals, coming off of a 4 game sweep of the Atlanta Braves, were four games back of the New York Mets entering a three game series with them at home. They had leads in every game. In every game, the bullpen blew it. They were swept and went seven back. Now, the Mets face the lackluster Reds with only four wins and Nats losses combined needed to clinch the division.

The first two batters went down quickly in the bottom of the ninth. It all came down to Bryce Harper, the only consistency on offense this season. He can’t get a hit every time.

A sign of hope


It didn’t help that Max Scherzer gave up 5 earned runs on seven hits over six innings, it definitely didn’t help that the Mets got a run home because of a balk that wasn’t a balk, and it didn’t help that Matt Williams managed the bullpen for situational matchups, pitching Felipe Rivero on no rest after a two inning stint yesterday, and not settling on one pitcher to get three outs. That’ll get you in the playoffs, and today’s game certainly felt like a playoff game.

But what if this was the game the Nationals were expected to lose? What if, instead of expecting to hammer Jon Niese and for Scherzer to shut down the Mets, that it was more likely that Strasburg and Zimmermann could down them and that the Nats could muster some offense against Harvey and deGrom, and take two out of three, like everyone was expecting, or at least hoping for? People would call this piece crazy. But it’s not a crazy idea – in fact, it’s very probable.

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Familiar Problems Plague Nats

Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond makes a fielding error on a ball hit by Philadelphia Phillies' Aaron Harang, who was safe at first after the play was reviewed, during the third inning of a baseball game at Nationals Park, Saturday, April 18, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

It’s an annoying phenomenon. After praising the Nationals for changing their approach completely and ushering a new era into the season, the only offense provided since has relied on solo home runs, which have been far and apart, the bullpen has gone into complete turmoil and the errors from the early season have returned. Great stuff to see in June from one of the World Series favorites, right?

The Nats, for so long have been on the verge of greatness, of consistency and of dominance. It’s showed up in periods, and lasted for decent amounts of time, but it’s never been the way the magazines and websites and tweeters predict it in the early season. The Nationals’ struggles continue to baffle and annoy their fans. The team’s hitting almost is reminiscent of a high school boyfriend or girlfriend, always saying how they want to be better, and how they will be soon. Just like the Nationals, the solution works for a little bit of time, and falls apart later. Ryan Zimmerman, a career .282 hitter, is hitting a measly .213. Since the last expose on the brilliance of the Nationals batting this year, the Nationals have averaged roughly 2.5 runs a game.

It’s an infuriating sequence that fans have become all too familiar with over the past few years. But somehow, miraculously, the Nationals sit a mere 0.5 games behind first place, even with a record only two games above .500. There’s no question the subpar NL East deserves a lot of the credit, with the Mets’ current record only exceeding the Nationals in the wins column, by one game.

Many may argue that the loss of Jayson Werth is a large factor in this sudden offensive decline. It certainly is. But blaming an entire team’s batting average falling off of a cliff on one injury seems a bit excessive. And despite the return of Anthony Rendon, there’s still a lot missing from him we know he’s capable of, which will sooner or later appear. But a team must be able to pick up not having two bats in the lineup.

The bullpen, in a word, has been abysmal. Four spots on the board have been common, if not normal.

So, once again, Nationals fans are left with one question: is it time to jump the ship?

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Nats fans looking for wrong things, getting wrong things – but also what they need.


It’s hard to believe that the season is nearly two months in, but the numbers don’t lie (as they rarely do). As May begins to come to a close, the Nationals, for the first time in three years, look poised to finish the month atop the NL East. For the past two years, the Nationals have underperformed in the early months of the season, hovering at or below .500, but this year, the offense woke up early enough to provide a meaningful impact, and the Nats sit at an uncharacteristic third in the MLB in runs, with 207, and tied for ninth with the L.A. Dodgers in batting average, with a team average of .260.

None of this could be made possible without Bryce Harper’s early power display (sixteen home runs and counting), which all started on Opening Day against Bartolo Colon, exploded in his three home run game against the Marlins, and sat at a consistent pace after his walk off home run against the Braves in a euphoric afternoon for D.C. Sports (Paul Pierce called game).

The Nationals are on an unprecedented tear, and are in the midsts of a six game winning streak. Harper is finally playing like the player the Nationals expected when they drafted him. But the most exciting part of this team, going down to the wire, isn’t actually Harper.

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Certainly Not Perfect, But It’ll Do

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Despite being considered among the most powerful cities in the world, and certainly the most powerful politically, when it comes to sports, DC has long been considered a city filled with lovable losers. Something is certainly shifting, as the Capitals and Wizards have both advanced to the second round of their respective playoffs, and the Redskins are finally showing sense in the front office. Logic would suggest that these positive experiences should be rubbing off on the Nationals, right? Well, not exactly, but for the most part, yes.  Continue reading

Harper’s early power, discipline, coming at right time

MLB: New York Mets at Washington Nationals

Yes, it is still early. Yes, we still can have fun with small sample sizes. Yes, there will be slumps, alongside miscues and errors. But with what we’ve seen so far from Bryce Harper, this may be the year he finally silences critics.

Although we’re only 11 games into the season, less than ten percent, Bryce Harper has started the season doing what everyone expected him to do when he was a prospect. Harper has had disciplined at bats, unreal power, and has shown the fire that made him so popular while simultaneously toning it down enough that he is no longer making plays that put his health at risk.

And while this (albeit, expected) advancement in Harper’s development is exciting and important, it’s even more exciting and important especially right now. Continue reading