Since Jonathan Papelbon joined the Nationals in a trade last July, he has a 7.27 ERA through nine games against the Philadelphia Phillies and a 2.33 mark in 38 outings against other teams.
Add in the fact he was traded from the Phillies to the Nats and you've got a strange statistic. Why does Papelbon have so much trouble against his former team, a club that ranks dead last in baseball this season in runs per game?
“I really can’t [explain it]. I don’t know, that’s just baseball," Papelbon said after allowing a ninth inning homer to Phillies third baseman Maikel Franco on Sunday.
Papelbon has now allowed 12 hits and four walks in just 8 2/3 innings against the Phillies since he joined the Nats. Three of those hits have been homers.
The numbers are so different for Papelbon against the Phillies that it's a fair question whether the Nats should avoid using him against them altogether. Manager Dusty Baker, however, doesn't think that's feasible.
"Yeah, but how do do that and not cause psychological damage? That's what people don't understand is that there are certain psychological things that you have to have. You start chipping away at the guy's confidence and then you don't have the same guy. It's easy to say 'put somebody else in,' but what happens when they don't do it? Do I go back and say 'hey man, I was just kidding.'"
Baker isn't entirely sure why Papelbon has so much trouble against the Phillies, but he did offer one theory on Monday.
"Most of his woes have been out of Philly. You don't know if that's psychological out of his part or their part. If you take away the Philly games, he's almost been unflappable. Yesterday he hung a slider and that's what you're supposed to do with it. A lot of times when you're not locating well and you're hanging a pitch is when you're trying too hard. Hank Aaron has always told me that the most dangerous pitcher is a relaxed pitcher… Maybe he's not as relaxed against his former team."
The Nationals won't shy away from pitching Papelbon against the Phillies and they still have confidence in him as their closer in general. The right-hander does have 16 saves in 18 opportunities this season, though some have been more stressful than others.
"There aren't many lockdown closers around. That's a hard job. I think that's one of the hardest jobs there is, to take the final breath out of anybody and get those last three outs. I've seen a lot of guys who can't. They can be good in that setup role, but they aren't very good in that closer role," Baker said.
"Instead of us getting on him, let's pull for him and send him some positive vibes. There aren't many. How many lockdown closers are there? This guy's a potential All-Star. He's got 16 saves... You take away his saves and where are we? He's one of ours."
The Nats won't have to worry about Papelbon facing Philly again for a good while. The two teams do not play each other until Aug. 29-31.