WASHINGTON — As the Washington Nationals’ Matt den Dekker and Dan Uggla batted in the eighth inning of a meaningless makeup game Monday in D.C., a group of upper-deck fans began chanting for Bryce Harper to make an appearance.
But it wasn’t going to happen.
The 24,420 fans who showed up to Nationals Park on a perfect September afternoon missed seeing Washington’s most electric player, and the leading candidate to win the NL MVP come November, for a final time this season.
In a season gone horribly wrong for the Nationals, Harper sat out Monday’s 5–1 win against the Cincinnati Reds because he was involved in a dugout fight with his teammate, closer Jonathan Papelbon, during Sunday’s 12–5 home loss against Philadelphia.
Here’s what happened: In the eighth inning, Harper hit a fly ball to leftfield and jogged toward first base. Papelbon, at the dugout railing, yelled at him to “run it out,’’ and when Harper got to the dugout, the two heatedly exchanged words. Harper reportedly told Papelbon he wanted to go at it, to which Papelbon did, attacking Harper by putting his left arm around his neck—an image that took up half of The Washington Post’s front page sports section on Monday.
Papelbon pushed Harper into the bench, and teammates, as well as coaches Steve McCatty and Rick Schu, pulled them apart.
Papelbon dropped his appeal of the MLB suspension and he’ll not be with the Nationals when they conclude the season in Atlanta and New York. His Nationals uniform was not hanging at his locker before the game.
Harper wasn’t in the mood to address the media before Monday’s game. He walked over to a garbage can, threw out some papers and informed reporters that he wasn’t talking. Meanwhile, in another section of the clubhouse, Nationals infielder Danny Espinosa joked with reporters, “You guys are going to have a field day today.”
After Monday’s win, in which Max Scherzer was working on his second no-hitter of the season until losing it with one out in the eighth, Harper dodged questions about if he thought the Nationals’ punishment was fair. He was asked several times, and each time he blew off the question.
“I just want to play every single day and when I’m out of the lineup, it’s not fun,” Harper said.
But, what was he supposed to do with Papelbon’s hands around his neck?
“I don’t know,” he answered. “My first reaction was to do what I did.”
What did Harper do?
“He said something to Papelbon and he played a part in the incident,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said. “The punishment fits.”
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, in a postgame press conference, joked that he was pulling for a no-hitter to change the course of the postgame discussion. But, what he also explained in a nervous voice was that Harper was not allowed to play.
“Bryce had some accountability and we felt to discipline Papelbon the way we did and not Bryce was unfair,” Rizzo said.
Williams and Rizzo thought that Harper had run hard enough on the fly ball. Williams pointed out that Harper had reached first base. Rizzo said it takes guts for a veteran player to call out a younger player for not hustling, but Rizzo didn’t agree with Papelbon’s assessment.
“[Harper] didn’t deserve it in my opinion,” Rizzo said. “But, in Jonathan Papelbon’s opinion he did.”
There was more controversy surrounding Williams and the way he handled the fight Sunday. Harper left the game after the incident, but Williams allowed Papelbon to pitch in the ninth inning, saying that he was the closer and the ninth was his inning.
Williams was on the home-plate side of the dugout when the fight broke out. It happened 30 to 40 feet from Williams and created a scene, but Williams was the only one who didn’t know details. None of the players or coaches told Williams about the incident and how serious it was.
During his pregame press conference Monday, Williams said that if he known the seriousness of the fight, he wouldn’t have let Papelbon take the mound in the ninth. Williams watched video later and realized he had made a mistake.
“When I was able to view the footage of yesterday’s incident, I was upset,” Williams said. “I was appalled.”
Williams said that the fact that no coaches or players told him during the game what happened was not a reflection on his credibility within the team ranks. He said he was focused on the batter at the plate: “I take the responsibility. I could have gone after more information.”
Rizzo said that he thought Williams’s move to keep Papelbon in the game against the Phillies was odd.
“But there is a lot going on in the dugout at the time. [Williams] missed it. He owned up to it. It was his fault. He made a mistake.”
Did the coaches make a mistake by not telling Williams?
“There is plenty of blame to go around,” Rizzo said.
At the start of the season, the Nationals were picked by virtually every prognosticator to win the World Series. Even Harper in spring training asked, “Where’s my ring?”
But, the Nationals fell apart early and often. They had winning records in two months—May (18–9) and June (15–12)—and losing records in the other four.
They struggled with injuries, an inconsistent rotation and a youthful and ineffective bridge in the bullpen from rotation to the closer. They had a chance to reacquire Oakland reliever Tyler Clippard, but didn’t and Clippard ended up going to the Mets.
Washington lost six consecutive games in the second half to the NL East champion Mets, who eliminated the Nationals from postseason contention Saturday.
The questions turn to next season for the Nats.
Will Papelbon, who is signed for $11 million next season, be on the team? Will Williams get fired? Will the displaced closer, Storen, out with a broken thumb, get traded? Will Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Ian Desmond—each a potential free agent—return?
Rizzo said all moving parts would be examined after the season. He said Papelbon is a good teammate and fit into the clubhouse culture fine. “I’m not going to judge his entire career on one incident,” he said.
Rizzo delivered the news to Papelbon on Monday and said the pitcher was upset. “He’ll learn and react differently next time.”
Rizzo told him he’d see him next spring, but he wouldn’t say if Papelbon apologized.
“We parted amicably,” Rizzo said.
As for Harper, he said he didn’t expect to come to the ballpark and get into a fight with a teammate. He hopes to talk to Papelbon in person and he said each understands that the Nationals need them to do their parts to win next year.
“[Papelbon’s] main goal is to win every single day and my main goal is to win every single day,’’ Harper said. “It is something we need to do. We can’t be fighting each other.”