Papelbon and Harper: It’s Tenth Grade again

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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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Microcosms

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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

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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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