After Bryce Harper, Jonathan Papelbon fight in dugout, is it time to fight manager Matt Williams?

The Nationals have the same run differential (+61) as the Dodgers, and virtually the same as the Cubs. It’s widely assumed that Joe Maddon has done a tremendous job, and that Don Mattingly’s done well enough to keep his job.

Yes, I know: Expectations; the Nationals were supposed to run away with their division and instead they’re out of the playoffs with a week to go. But I continue to think it’s worth remembering that JUST ONE YEAR AGO, 30 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America anointed Matt Williams as National League MANAGER OF THE YEAR. Has he somehow gone from being a great manager in 2014 to a lousy manager in 2015?

Probably not. There’s been a great deal of talk lately about Williams’ tactical shortcomings — using the wrong relief pitchers at the wrong times, in particular — and I share those concerns. But I just think it’s a little odd that so many of the opinion-makers didn’t seem too concerned a year ago about the exact same tendencies.

But Sunday afternoon, after Jonathan Papelbon attacked teammate Bryce Harper in the dugout …

and Williams sent Papelbon back to the mound, only to see Papelbon give up five runs and a ninth-inning lead — blood is in the water. Just to cite one of our more erudite pundits, here’s Tyler Kepner in the Times:

We have a winner for the most ridiculous decision in the major leagues this season, and nothing else is close.

In the bottom of the eighth inning at Nationals Park on Sunday, Washington closer Jonathan Papelbon attacked Bryce Harper in the home dugout. Standing on the dugout stairs above Harper, Papelbon escalated a verbal altercation by lunging at Harper, placing his hand around his neck and slamming him into the wall.

Then, as if nothing had happened, Matt Williams let Papelbon go back out to pitch. That decision should be the final one he makes as Washington’s manager.

–snip–

The Nationals should give a clear signal of support for their best player, a signal Williams refused to send Sunday. This is Harper’s team, and he deserves better.

Look, if you want to talk about Williams losing the clubhouse and perhaps the confidence of his employers, that’s a different sort of conversation. Because being the same manager doesn’t mean relationships haven’t changed. Williams has, in the past, taken some heat for disciplining Harper … then again, is there any evidence that Harper’s a worse player, or an unhappy player, because of Williams’ tough love? Last I checked, Harper’s actually having a pretty tremendous season.

Which brings me to my next question. … Should an $11 million player and a recent Manager of the Year really be jettisoned because a 22-year-old player might be happier than if they’re not?

Or if Papelbon’s really the problem here, what about instead firing the guy who traded for him?

Hey, I might fire Williams, too. But only if a) I was utterly convinced that Williams really had lost the clubhouse, or b) I was utterly convinced that my next manager would be better. I’m a big believer in stability, but on the other hand the Cubs don’t seem to have missed Rick Renteria much. The problem is that Joe Maddon’s no longer available, and I don’t know that there’s another Joe Maddon out there. So if you’re just going to hire another Matt Williams, then why not keep the one you’ve got?

Again, unless he’s lost the clubhouse. Which is quite possible, considering how this season, and especially the last seven or eight weeks, have gone for the Nationals. I just don’t believe that a few seconds in a meaningless game in late September constitutes a prima facie case that the manager’s guilty of professional misconduct.

I might release Papelbon. But only if a) I thought his fine pitching this season wasn’t likely to continue next year, or b) there wasn’t much chance of trading him this winter for a decent prospect or something.

Look, I understand that Harper is easily the Nationals’ best player. And I also understand that the rules are different for a player like Harper; as Joe McCarthy said, after taking over as Red Sox manager, about the famously irascible Ted Williams: “You don’t say anything to a .400 hitter except, ‘How do you do, sir.’ ”

But I also understand that it doesn’t pay to make big, franchise-shifting decisions immediately after a couple of arrested adolescents, whatever their relative talents, push each other’s buttons and get into a stupid wrestling match, however public.

I don’t think Williams will survive what’s happened over the last two months. Not professionally, in the short term (and maybe not in the long term, either). I’m not at all sure he should survive them. I do think Williams is going to wind up shouldering 95 percent of the blame for the Nationals’ fantastically disappointing season. And I think that’s at least 85 percent more than he deserves.