The Washington Nationals ended the home campaign of their 2015 season on a high-note Monday with Max Scherzer taking a no-hitter into the 8th inning before giving up a single. Manager Matt Williams pulled Scherzer soon after, with the right-hander striking out ten and getting credit for the 5-1 win over the Reds. Scherzer, who will take a 13-12 record and 2.91 ERA into his final start of the season against the Mets this weekend, is one of the Nats’ few bright spots in a season full of disappointments. The other, of course, is Bryce Harper—who was choked Sunday afternoon by Nats reliever Jonathan Papelbon.
Papelbon was suspended for the rest of the year, but bizarrely Harper was also benched for the last home game of the year. You’d think that Nats management wouldn’t try to draw some sort of equivalence between a player who assaulted a teammate, and the only reason the club isn’t below .500. Then again, you’d also think management wouldn’t punish fans who expected to see the best player in the National League in the Nats’ last home game. However, the reality is that the Washington baseball franchise isn’t a very well run organization.
The Papelbon-Harper flare-up started well before Papelbon confronted the outfielder for not running out a fly ball. In a game with local rival Baltimore last week, Papelbon threw at Orioles third baseman Manny Machado for taking too long to circle the bases after a home run he’d hit earlier against Scherzer. Harper told the press after the game that he thought Papelbon’s move was “pretty tired,” and speculated that “I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow” in retaliation. Presumably, the right-handed reliever wasn’t happy that Harper aired his issues with him publicly, but Harper was right. Even if the Nats weren’t treading water at that point in the season, why throw at a man’s head and risk his career, if not his life, for not moving around the bases quickly enough? This bone-headed version of baseball morality is something that certainly should be aired in public—and denounced (as former big leaguer Dirk Hayhurst does here)—because beanball wars make the game more dangerous for players and therefore worse for fans.
Even if Papelbon isn’t a jerk—and there’s plenty of evidence he is; and, on the other hand, some support from major league colleagues who think he was right to wrap his hand around Harper’s neck—the fact is that the entire episode shows that the Nats were way too tightly wound, and a hothead like Papelbon hardly helped mellow them out. According to many Nats players, the person to blame for the club’s temperament is Manager Matt Williams. “They describe him as ‘tense,’ both in the dugout and, particularly, after losses,” Barry Svrluga writes in the Washington Post.