Most people, if not everyone, appreciate a good joke. In sports, humor is often abundant and much of it is in good nature without a true victim. Then, there is the ironic humor that unfolded Sunday at Nationals Park when closer Jonathan Papelbon attempted to choke star outfielder Bryce Harper “Homer Simpson” style after Harper flied out to right field and, in Papelbon’s view, did not promptly run the play out.
Papelbon’s preferred method of combat, the choke hold, is ironic because it would quite accurately describe the last two-and-a-half months of Nationals’ baseball. This was supposed to be the year — the year that Washington would break through the National League ceiling to earn its first-ever World Series berth. Instead, the Nats will begin their vacation early because the team will not even make the playoffs at all.
In April the Nats were projected to win 95 games and dominate the National League. At the All-Star Break, everything was the way it was supposed to be. The Nationals held a two-game lead over the New York Mets for first place and were on pace to win 90 games. Since July 16, the last day of the break, Washington has gone 32-38 while the Mets have gone 42-26. To translate, in 10 weeks, the Nationals gave up 11 games to the Mets, who have already clinched the division.
Undoubtedly, Washington’s performance has been mediocre at best, but credit must be given where credit is due; the Mets have played amazing baseball throughout the second half of the season. Before the break, the Mets were last or second-to-last in the National League in many offensive categories including runs, hits, batting average and on-base percentage. Since the all-star break, the Mets are third in hits, lead the league in runs by a margin of nearly 40 and are tied for the highest on-base percentage.
Compare this to Washington. For the first half of the season, the Nats were in the middle of the pack for these very same stats. At a basic level, it makes sense why Washington held the lead through the middle of July. After the break, the Nationals either stayed the same or, if they improved, were still surpassed by the Mets. This is all the more frustrating when considering that offense has been the main difference between the two teams. Simply put, the Nationals just couldn’t score enough runs in the second half of the season.
Pitching, especially in the bullpen, can explain part of the Nationals’ decline. Washington has been credited with 24 losses in relief in 2015. As that stat implies, the Nationals bullpen either blew a lead or allowed its opponents to break a tie 24 times. Another example reared its head on Sunday when, after choking the potential league MVP, Papelbon was sent back to the mound for the ninth inning and promptly blew a 4-4 tie with Philadelphia. He began by giving up a go-ahead two-run home run en route to an eight-run ninth inning and an ugly 12-5 loss.
Papelbon was subsequently suspended for the altercation, but the real issue is that he was allowed to continue playing as if nothing happened. It is understandable that no game is meaningless to the players and coaches regardless of the standings — everyone is always competing for a job, pride or some other reason. After the fight it was of little surprise to see reports emerge that manager Matt Williams has lost the clubhouse. That is a relatively ambiguous term, but it is clear that players do not enjoy showing up for work or, at the very least, do not like showing up for work with him as their manager.
Yes, Washington suffered many injuries — probably more than normal. Several high-impact players missed significant time, including pitcher Stephen Strasburg, infielder Anthony Rendon and outfielder Denard Span. However, there were several major drop-offs in production for players who were healthy all season. Ian Desmond, who has been a National for his entire career, is the clear example. For the past three seasons Desmond has been a Silver Slugger; this year he is batting a career low .236, has an on-base percentage lower than .300 and has driven in the fewest runs since 2009, when he only played in 21 games. There is widespread speculation that this weekend will mark Desmond’s final days as a National.
It is possible to get rid of players, fire a manager and heal, but at some point, the Nationals need to overcome the seemingly intrinsic barrier that is preventing them from meeting and exceeding expectations. For a team with a $165 million payroll — including a $78 million pitching staff — Washington is overpriced and underperforming. Whatever the answers are, at least management has the rest of October to sit back and think, because the laughs at Nationals Park will not return until April. Hopefully, the fans will be laughing at the President’s Race instead of the product on the field.
Michael Ippolito is a junior in the College. The Water Cooler appears every Friday.