(A weekly look at the players, teams, trends, up-shoots and downspouts shaping the 2015 season.)
Jonathan Papelbon’s crime, beyond of course the assault and battery, is the ego. He sees more of himself than is actually there. In that way it is surprising he did not fit in better with the Washington Nationals.
On his way to becoming a rarity in the game – the object of derision by home fans in two cities in the same summer – Papelbon grabbed himself a fistful of neck (not his own) and a handful of trouble (his own), though this time his crotch was not involved, and for that we can be thankful. As such, if every clubhouse you walk into seems to have a locker for a boorish bully, maybe it’s not the clubhouse.
The Nationals knew the closer they acquired was a decent pitcher and an incendiary character, and were willing to take the former in trade for the latter, because this was how they would win the NL East. Again, this speaks to a view of themselves that may not have been totally honest but perhaps excusable, given they were in first place at the time.
The Nationals now have choices to make. Some will be easier than others. Papelbon’s participation beyond this season will be part of the discussion, presumably. Whether he stays or goes, Papelbon may have provided a service.
That is, what would possess a man who’d been invited into the club two months before to behave in such a way? Ignore, for a moment, the possibilities of temporary insanity and permanent incivility.
Papelbon, a pitcher, stood at the dugout rail and scolded Bryce Harper, the best player in the league, for the manner in which he comported himself on a baseball field. What was Papelbon – in his bug-eyed, vicious, spittled performance – saying about team leadership?
About Mike Rizzo? About Matt Williams? About the men in a clubhouse that wilted – flat wilted – in a season that was supposed to be about them, not about the New York Mets? About the men responsible for leading them?
It was not Papelbon’s place to lecture anyone, let alone Harper. And in spite of the show of harmony that followed Papelbon’s attack of Harper, the notion of a Papelbon-Harper clubhouse in 2016 is toxic for a team that has to wonder what it’s made of and now must go about fixing it. The Nationals can’t be wrong this time. They can’t be wrong again. They have to start with who makes the decisions, who sets the examples, who makes the rules, however high – or low – that goes. It also starts with the kind of men they want to have playing for them and, maybe as important, standing at their dugout rail.
It’s a helluva lesson. A dumb one. A borderline criminal one.
And yet the Nationals need to ask themselves about what would possess the new guy to take on a man who busted his butt for seven months, who performed, who produced, who actually gave a crap about how all this ended. Harper wasn’t the problem. But there were plenty of others.
Maybe, in the most miserable, dangerous and knuckleheaded way ever, those were what Papelbon was addressing. The systemic problems. He did the Nationals the favor of including himself in his assessment, in case they missed the boorish bully in the room.
For the damage he’s done, and that which he is still capable, the Nationals could at least thank him for that.
Matt Williams in an impossible situation
On Monday afternoon, at the conclusion of his press conference, Matt Williams arranged the sheets of paper before him, tapped the pile on the table to get a neat edge, and sighed.
The job isn’t easy. Over two seasons, he’d managed to stand in the way of some reasonable decisions at some very bad times, and now the heavy speculation says he won’t be back for a third season. He once won 96 games with a team that should have won at least that many, and was recognized as his league’s Manager of the Year for it, and then lost in the division series. He was the overwhelming favorite to win again, and then almost nothing went right, including, finally, decorum.
This is the time of year when owners trying to keep a fan base and general managers trying to keep a job take the path of least resistance, usually in one of those off-road pickup trucks, engine roaring, stereo blasting AC/DC, tall boy stuffed between their legs.
Over seven and a half months, a game a day, two press conferences a day, a thousand inconveniences a day, it’s not all going to look good. Maybe Matt Williams will have coming whatever is coming, for the bullpen management, for the losses, for the bygone composure, for the lack of in-game nimbleness. Try to remember he hates this more than you do, and that he’ll wear the results – the failures – like a mule’s yoke.
And then try to remember he’s not alone in this mess, just the easiest part of it to run over on the path of least resistance.
When ruling an error is right
Going on two weeks ago, in a largely meaningless game between the Padres and Diamondbacks, Andrew Cashner scratched out a largely meaningless hit against Diamondbacks lefty Robbie Ray.
Cashner had bounced a ball to the right side that Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt should or should not have made a play on, and didn’t, and the scorer in Arizona had determined it was a hit. No matter. Ray was out of the inning in two more batters. No runs scored. No extra pitches were expended.
No one gave it another thought.
No one but Goldschmidt.
He appealed the scorer’s decision, claiming he should have made the play and therefore this meaningless hit in this throwaway game should be changed to an error. On him.
Goldschmidt won a Gold Glove in 2013. He is again among the top defensive first basemen in the National League. One error – he’d committed three all season – could be the difference between winning the award again or not.
One man’s fortunate turn is another’s crisis of conscience. A leader is a leader. And right is right.
Last week a league review of the play, requested by Goldschmidt, determined Goldschmidt indeed would be charged with the error. So Ray had allowed one fewer hit. Yes, Cashner, the innocent bystander, had lost his hit, too.
And Paul Goldschmidt felt a lot better about the whole thing.
Next season shaping up for Diamondbacks
Speaking of the Diamondbacks, it’s nearly time for the Yasmany Tomas reset.
The 24-year-old Cuban who signed with the club last December for $68.5 million guaranteed over six years had a reasonable season, given the major leagues were all new to him, as was America, as was every single pitcher he saw. Also, given he showed up in spring training in what most viewed as sub-optimal physical shape, which is a nice way of saying he was chunky, and pretty much played the season that way.
That said, he batted .281 while bouncing (literally, some would say) from left field to first base to third base to right field. He also hit nine home runs in 415 plate appearances, a huge disappointment considering the Diamondbacks parted with that $68.5 million primarily because of Tomas’ power.
After batting .313 in the first half, he’s hit .224 in the second, and ultimately lost his corner outfield job to Ender Inciarte.
The club seems likely to deal an outfielder or two – it’s crowded out there, what with Tomas, Inciarte, A.J. Pollock, David Peralta and a coming Peter O’Brien – for pitching. Tomas seems likely to stay, which means plenty of work ahead, charted by Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale.
“I think next year you’re going to see a huge jump up in his performance,” he said. “No. 1, he’s going to come back in a lot better shape.”
Hale said Tomas’ less productive second half might have been a product of Tomas chasing home runs, resulting in a little more power – “When they do make mistakes he is showing he can put the ball in the seats,” he said of Tomas’ four home runs in 143 second-half at-bats – and also fewer walks, fewer hits and fewer good at-bats.
The game is very hard. It’s harder when your body is working against you too.
Angels aren’t done yet
The Angels may not win anything. Of their six remaining games, two are against the Oakland A’s and four are at Texas. They are two back in the big race and a half-game behind in the little one. That they are in this somewhat dire position at all is on them.
They did, however, spend a good part of the summer covering for the general manager who resigned, and a lot of September meeting with potential successors, which doesn’t excuse the 19-loss August unless you were hoping for something in the way of a productive bat out of the trading deadline. (That said, David Murphy has five home runs and 21 RBI in 44 games, including a walk-off hit to beat the A’s Monday night, which isn’t nothing.)
And they did just win 17 times in 25 games, and nine times in 11 games, three of those against the Twins and two against the Astros. They’ve won six in a row, five by one run. So, there is some life here, albeit just in time to see their closer, Huston Street, chase their eighth-inning man, Joe Smith, into the trainer’s room.
The starting pitching is thin, the bullpen is thinner, and Albert Pujols has been limping for a month, which is a perfect time for Mike Trout to become Mike Trout again. He’s not entirely alone. David Freese, C.J. Cron and Kole Calhoun have perked up. Nick Tropeano and Andrew Heaney – Jerry Dipoto acquisitions five weeks apart last winter – have covered for the turnover in the rotation. (The rotation over the next six: Tropeano, Garrett Richards, Heaney, Jered Weaver – who left Sunday’s start with a sore shoulder – Hector Santiago and Tropeano again.) And 24-year-old Mike Morin, on the second-to-last Sunday of the season, pitched the ninth inning of a one-run game for the first big-league save of his life. A night later, Trevor Gott recorded a win.
So, yeah, six more games. They may not win, but they might. Given where they were and how it looked, that’s something.
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