Nats Post-mortem: An Explosion of Implosion

He may go down as the most reviled Nat ever, but you’ve got to give Jonathan Papelbon some credit. He did what a season’s worth of bad decisions, inept play, and bullpen mismanagement could not make certain.

He got Matt Williams fired.

Williams is general manager Mike Rizzo’s guy. They worked together in the Arizona organization and Rizzo developed a liking for the taciturn “Big Marine.” Williams was NL manager of the year in 2014 and despite his horrendous performance in last year’s playoffs against the Giants, the Nats in February executed their option on Williams’ services for 2016. And Rizzo didn’t sound like he wanted to fire Williams. Just three weeks ago, after yet another game blown by the relievers, Rizzo described Williams’ handling of the bullpen as “masterful.”

During August and September, the Nats played twelve games against the Mets (6), the Cardinals (3), and the Orioles (3) which were arguably significant. In ten of them, the Nats were either tied or leading entering the seventh inning. The Nats won one and lost eleven. In most of the losses, questionable decision-making by Williams figured prominently.

He could do nothing right. Against the Mets 7/31-8/2, in the series which cost the Nats first place, he failed to use either Papelbon or Drew Storen in three tight losses. Against St. Louis in early September, he brought woeful Casey Janssen back for consecutive poundings which cost two games. Against the Mets on September 7th, he left Max Scherzer in too long. The following night, he yanked J. Zimmerman too soon, after 5.2 innings of 3-hit ball and a manageable pitch count. His replacements promptly surrendered a 7-1 lead in an 8-7 loss.

With apologies to James Russell Lowell, what is so rare as a reliever who can pitch a clean seventh inning?

“Bullpen Implodes Again” became a standing headline in Washington Post game accounts

MacMillan defines “Implosion” as an inward explosion. The word is more aptly used to describe what goes on in Williams’ mind as he makes one bad decision after another. All year long, the Nats have failed to move runners, botched sacrifices, made critical fielding errors, and run themselves out of big innings. A manager must be held accountable when a team is deficient in fundamentals. Williams’ bungling has not been limited to the bullpen.

To make matters worse, Williams could not or would not explain his looney decision-making. “We’ve just got to win tomorrow,” was his robotic mantra to reporters after losses.

A baseball fan since the 50′s, I cannot recall a manager whose job was threatened because he made terrible in-game decisions. I guess it’s because most managers who reach the major leagues have managed at other levels and have learned game management. Not so Williams, who never managed prior to being hired by Rizzo.

When I broached the subject of Williams being fired to colleagues after the recent Mets series, at least half of them opined that he would hold on to his job. In the aftermath of the dugout brawl in the home half of the 8th inning Sunday between Papelbon and Bryce Harper, in which Papelbon choked Harper in full view of the cameras, the climate has changed. The fight evidently caught everyone’s attention but Williams, who sent Papelbon back to the mound to start the ninth inning. Papelbon was rocked for five runs.

Papelbon embraces Harper

There was prelude to the scuffle, and some irony. Papelbon would not have been playing had he not appealed his 3-game suspension for throwing at Manny Machado last week. And Harper had taken exception to Papelbon’s head-hunting. “They’ll probably hit me tomorrow,” he said. To the bombastic Papelbon, who has a well-earned reputation as a bad apple, these were fighting words. When Harper failed to run out a fly ball on Sunday, Papelbon imploded. The brawl ensued.

When Rizzo brought Papelbon in at the trade deadline to supplant Drew Storen as closer, there was speculation that Papelbon’s arrival would disrupt team unity. Storen was having a good year and was popular with teammates. But during Papelbon’s two months with the team, during which he performed poorly, he has been more than disruptive. He has shattered the careers of Rizzo, Storen, and Williams, as well as his own, and has contributed mightily to the perception of the Nats as choking dogs.

Rizzo will long be lampooned for acquiring Papelbon. Storen, who broke his hand against his locker in frustration after a string of failures following the trade, is discredited. Williams, as noted, will be fired at year’s end. Papelbon is under contract next year for 11 million, but after that, he’ll be lucky to find employment as a bouncer.

After the game, William advanced the incredible notion that he didn’t see the fight and hadn’t been aware of the severity of the struggle. Had he known the details, he said, he wouldn’t have sent Papelbon back out. More likely, Williams was overwhelmed by the confluence of events, lost his train of thought, and did what he usually does at crunch time – the wrong thing.

Nats fans who have followed the team closely knew Williams had to go. For getting it done, Papelbon is entitled to a thank you note. But mail it soon. Because if one thing is certain other than Williams’ ouster, it’s that Papelbon, despite the 11 million, will be getting a new address.


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