By all rights, the lowest point of the Nationals' season should have come on Saturday, when Washington was officially eliminated from playoff contention by the Mets' National League East–clinching win in Cincinnati. But on Sunday afternoon, the Nationals hit the kind of low that exposed just how toxic, terrible and flat-out embarrassing this year has been for the team, and especially for overwhelmed manager Matt Williams, when Bryce Harper and Jonathan Papelbon came to blows in the Washington dugout.
With the Nationals and Phillies tied, 4–4, in the bottom of the eighth inning at Nationals Park, Harper stepped in against Dalier Hinojosa to lead off the frame. Amid a hitless day, Harper worked the count to 1–2 before popping up a fastball to leftfield, then jogged slowly to first base as leftfielder Jeff Francoeur made the out. As Harper touched the bag and turned to the dugout, however, he found himself on the receiving end of a tirade from Papelbon, who had recorded the final out of the top of the eighth and was now screaming at Harper for not running the ball out to first. A clearly angry Harper fired back at Papelbon, who then lunged at Harper, slamming him against the dugout wall and trying to choke him; the two shoved each other for a few seconds before teammates broke up the fight.
Two teammates arguing at the end of a long season is nothing new, particularly for a team that has likely reached an emotional breaking point after seeing its playoff chances snuffed out the day earlier. But how and why the fight happened is symptomatic of what a broken franchise the Nationals have become, and the response of Williams afterward shows just how little control he seems to have over his own team—and how little he seems to understand his own job.
Take, for example, the fact that Williams didn't try to stop the fight, and seemingly did nothing to address or defuse the situation immediately after. Or take the even more bewildering fact that Williams, after the Nationals made the final out of the eighth, sent Papelbon back out to the mound, where he promptly gave up a go-ahead two-run homer to Andres Blanco to start an eight-run ninth inning for the Phillies. Or take his postgame press conference, where, when he was asked by reporters why he stayed with Papelbon after his closer literally assaulted the team's best player, Williams bafflingly responded with, “At the time, it's a tie game.... He’s our closer. In a tie game, he’s in the ballgame in the ninth inning.”
That Williams could see two of his own players fight in the dugout during a game—a fight involving his franchise player and the soon-to-be-NL MVP—and act as if everything were systems normal suggests that he has either completely lost interest in doing his job or that such sights are so common to him that he no longer thinks anything of them. At the very least, his postgame comments imply that he thinks two players having an actual physical altercation under his watch is simply a “boys will be boys” kind of thing.
“Well, certainly there is a lot of testosterone flowing among young men competing,” Williams said. “What I can tell you is this, this is a family issue and we'll deal with it that way.”
UPDATE: Amazingly enough, Williams apparently had no idea just how serious the fight between Harper and Papelbon was until several hours after the game, according to recent tweets from the Washington Post's James Wagner. Williams said he did not see video of the fight until after he had spoken to reporters, did not know how bad the fight was because he was sitting at the other end of the dugout when it happened, and that he would "absolutely not" have let Papelbon pitch had he known exactly what had happened. "I'm livid about it," he added to cap off one of the single stupidest displays of managerial incompetence in recent history.
Leave aside that it should be Williams's job to reprimand Harper for any lack of hustle, not Papelbon's—something even Papelbon admitted after the game. Count this as yet another moment when Williams has done too little or acted too late. Throughout this hideously disappointing year for Washington, Williams, 2014's NL Manager of the Year, has shown over and over again that his in-game and tactical decision making isn't up to snuff. His bullpen management has been an easy target all year, particularly amid the two series sweeps at the hands of the Mets in the second half that ended the Nats' NL East hopes. And last week, as the Mets put the finishing touches on their unlikely division title, reports came out of D.C. that Williams had completely lost the clubhouse. From the Washington Post's Barry Svrluga:
Williams was hired, in part, because he came to his interview with a meticulous plan, with each day of spring training mapped out. Some players now wonder whether that management of minutia leaves him unable to adjust, to think on the fly. They describe him as “tense,” both in the dugout and, particularly, after losses.
Now, several Nationals players believe Williams won’t be able to grow even if the club brings him back for 2016. And this isn’t just one or two malcontents. These opinions span positions and experience. “It’s a terrible environment,” one player said. “And the amazing part is everybody feels that way.”
Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that Sunday's fight happened; as Svrluga makes clear, Williams has no control over his own team and seemingly no ability to mend the various fractures that have been created amid this ultimately meaningless season. If general manager Mike Rizzo, a staunch Williams supporter, needed any more proof of that reality, it was there in front of his eyes as Papelbon attacked Harper while the manager sat and did nothing.
There is no question that Williams should be fired, and that the Nationals should both suspend Papelbon for the rest of the year and find any way they can to dump him in the off-season. But while there may be immediate solutions to Sunday's fight, there will undoubtedly be long-term ramifications when it comes to the man at the center of it: Harper.
All season, Harper has done everything in his power to keep the Nationals afloat as the rest of the team dragged him down like an anchor. His numbers are otherwordly, approaching peak Barry Bonds in terms of sheer dominance. At just 22 years of age, he has already become one of the best players in the game and is on the verge of completing one of the best offensive seasons in baseball history, and for that, he will cruise to an NL MVP award that he rightfully deserves.
But on Sunday, the best player on the Nationals—the only reason that they remain even above .500 instead of wallowing near the bottom of the NL East—was belittled and assaulted by a teammate while his manager sat by and did nothing. He was cursed out for a perceived lack of hustle despite the fact that few players work harder than Harper, or that virtually none of them produce or do more for their team. And afterward, his manager and teammates did everything they could to downplay the incident.
“The dugout stuff, in my opinion, is a non-story,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “That stuff just happens. It’s been an emotional couple of days. When the emotions boil over sometimes, it gets the best of us.”
Harper, for his part, sounded the same tone after the game, insisting that things were fine. “[Papelbon] apologized, so whatever,” Harper said to reporters. “I really don't care.... It's like brothers fighting. That’s what happens.” But it's unbelievable that this is the kind of treatment the team's best player is getting, or that his manager and teammates seemed to have no interest in vocally sticking up for him. The Nationals wasted a season of Harper's prime in a year in which they should have waltzed to a playoff spot, and to top it off, they insulted him on their way out the door, as well.
“We are going to be all right,” Desmond told reporters after the game, but it's hard to share his enthusiasm for the Nationals’ future. The team is set to lose a large chunk of its roster in free agency; Williams has been exposed as arguably the game's worst manager; the clubhouse is in total disarray; and the franchise star has one more negative to consider about his own team as he continues to play his way toward the most lucrative free-agent contract in major league history and possibly price himself right out of Washington’s plans. In a season that should have been full of superlatives, the Nationals will finish the year with only two: baseball's most disappointing team—and perhaps its most dysfunctional, too.