Harper vs. Papelbon a precursor to offseason shakeup in D.C.

Jonathan Papelbon is the easy target, and a proper target considering that he put his left hand around Bryce Harper’s neck.

But when exactly are the Nationals going to acknowledge the embarrassment of this lost season and clean up their act?

“Natitude” is a punch line, a marketing phrase gone awry, a fitting slogan for a team that has yet to win a postseason series and is all talk, no action.

Oh, the Nats went into full damage control after Papelbon vs. Harper. Papelbon admitted he was “wrong” to assault his teammate. Manager Matt Williams — who allowed Papelbon to pitch after the fight — told the Washington Post on Sunday night that he was not aware of the severity of the scrap because he was at the other end of the dugout.

You would think the dugout was the size of an airline terminal. And that a manager’s grasp could not possibly extend roughly 70 feet when his volatile closer is choking the likely MVP of the National League and his coaches are trying to intervene.

Williams got what he deserved — Papelbon entered a 4-4 game and promptly allowed five runs (two earned) in the ninth inning of the Nationals’ 12-5 loss to the Phillies. The manager will get what he deserves at the end of the season as well — he, too, is an easy and proper target, and if he wasn’t doomed before, he almost certainly is doomed now.

But let’s see the Nats fix their larger problems.


On Monday, the team suspended Papelbon for four games. That coupled with a three-game suspension from the league for hitting Manny Machado with a pitch effectively ends Papelbon’s season. Let’s see them part with Papelbon altogether, a closer whom general manager Mike Rizzo never should have acquired but still owes $11 million in 2016. Papelbon’s arrival drove former closer Drew Storen to distraction, then produced the usual share of extra-curricular Pap-driven nonsense (hello, Manny Machado).

And let’s see Rizzo address his clubhouse, which is long on Scott Boras clients but evidently short on cohesiveness. The Nats had too many players in their free-agent years, worrying about their futures. A number of them actually are high-character types — right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, shortstop Ian Desmond, outfielder Denard Span. And now they likely will be gone.

I’d also say let’s see the Nats find someone to tell Harper to run out balls, which admittedly is not too much to ask. But as one Nats veteran said of Harper on Sunday night, “In all honesty, he brings it every day. He may have some antics that rub people wrong, but he’s (always) trying to make a play in the field or make things happen at the plate. I’ve got nothing but positive for Harp.”

Harper is a star, and stars have egos, and stars occasionally can be petulant. Mike Trout, Kris Bryant and Carlos Correa also are stars, young stars like Harper, and they project a much more dignified vibe. But for all those fans screaming on Twitter that Harper is a punk, how would you like a punk on your team batting .336/.467/.658 in his age 22 season? End of discussion.

Yes, Harper risked a reaction — and elicited an overreaction — first by failing to run, then by appearing to tell Papelbon, “let’s go,” after Pap confronted him. Tell another player, “let’s go,” and maybe he drops it or resumes the discussion later. Utter those words to a pit bull —  er, Papelbon — and it’s game on.

Whatever, Papelbon vs. Harper was a mere symptom of the larger disease. This is the fourth straight year that the Nats’ season will end in disappointment, even though in two of those seasons they won 96 and 98 games.

New manager needed. New players. And uh, a better marketing phrase, too.