CINCINNATI – Jonathan Papelbon choking Bryce Harper became the perfect billboard for the Washington Nationals and their dysfunctional season.
And perhaps a sign the Cubs got another break in a magical year where almost everything seems to have gone right.
While the Cubs crunch numbers against the Pittsburgh Pirates and run through scenarios for the National League wild-card game, they can’t rely on a closer with six All-Star selections, 349 career saves and a 2007 World Series ring from the Boston Red Sox.
The Cubs also haven’t had to deal with that many clubhouse headaches or the “Cinco Ocho” alter ego.
There are factors that have nothing to do with computers and can’t be seen on spreadsheets. There’s no doubt this overall vibe has contributed to what has become a 94-win team.
The rookies had to squeeze into ridiculous dresses after sweeping the Cincinnati Reds with Thursday afternoon’s 5-3 victory at Great American Ball Park. Let the good times roll.
“I’ve known Jonathan for a long time, so I certainly would never disparage him,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “He had some pretty unbelievable seasons in Boston. But it does say a lot about (chemistry).
“That’s one of the things you wrestle with a lot at the trade deadline. You always want to improve your team. You always want to add depth to your team. But however you want to say it, it’s a house of cards all the time.
“You don’t know which move is going to topple things, or which move is really going to bolster things.”
With their bullpen in flux throughout the season, the Cubs had extensive talks with the Philadelphia Phillies and tried to trade for Papelbon before the July 31 deadline, but they didn’t have the financial muscle to beat the Nationals.
The Cubs have so many Red Sox connections inside their front office and within the clubhouse. Jon Lester publicly vouched for Papelbon, saying his ex-teammate would be more than a WWE villain/cartoon character. Manager Joe Maddon has an open mind and can relate to all kinds of players.
The Cubs had less than $5 million to play with at the July 31 deadline and wound up making smaller deals with the Miami Marlins and Baltimore Orioles, acquiring a veteran No. 5 starter (Dan Haren) and an intriguing/inconsistent reliever (Tommy Hunter).
Three days earlier, the Nationals added Papelbon to a combustible mix, giving up a Double-A pitcher and getting the Phillies to kick in $4.5 million to help cover his salary. Washington also reportedly convinced Papelbon to rework next year’s option, getting it guaranteed at $11 million instead of $13 million, with $3 million deferred to 2017.
The Washington Post just published an excellent three-part series on the rise and fall of the Nationals, a team that won 96 games last year and began this season as a World Series favorite on paper.
It exposed Matt Williams as an overmatched, tone-deaf manager and revealed the insecurities inside the clubhouse, what it did to homegrown closer Drew Storen, who got bumped out of the ninth inning and wound up breaking his thumb while slamming his locker in frustration.
[MORE CUBS: No wild-card game viewing party at Wrigley Field]
The headline to the third story in that ambitious Washington Post project: “In Jonathan Papelbon, Nationals got their closer – and their kiss of death.”
“It’s hard,” Hoyer said. “I’ve seen examples when it worked great – a team makes big changes at the deadline and they take off. And I’ve seen a lot of examples where doing almost nothing or doing small things is the right thing.”
Hoyer once interviewed for the job that went to Chicago guy Mike Rizzo, an old-school scout at heart with strong convictions and a sharp eye for talent.
The Nationals have gone from being a rebuilding blueprint to a cautionary tale for a Cubs franchise that is feeling pretty, pretty good about itself these days and will have to guard against the institutional arrogance rooted in Washington.
But Theo Epstein’s front office should get credit for all the smaller moves that have added up to the third-best record in baseball and a 21-game improvement from the year before.
It’s getting Clayton Richard for one dollar from Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate. It’s signing Trevor Cahill to a minor-league deal. It’s dealing with the Seattle Mariners to get Fernando Rodney and Austin Jackson – who blasted a three-run homer to give the Cubs the lead in the third inning on Thursday, the day after putting up five RBI – as insurance policies.
It’s allowed Maddon to play mix-and-match with the lineup and push whatever buttons he wants in the bullpen. Since getting no-hit by Cole Hamels and swept by the worst team in baseball in late July, the Cubs have gone 43-19.
“We’ve been able to add quite a bit of depth,” Hoyer said, “and that’s really helped us as guys have struggled or as guys have gotten hurt.
“To a man, the guys that we’ve added have really brought something to the clubhouse and brought something to our team.”
Keep playing it out: What if Chase Utley hadn’t been so focused on going home to the West Coast and directing the Phillies to make a trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers?
The Cubs tried to get the six-time All-Star second baseman in August for his postseason experience and lead-by-example qualities.
But with Utley, would Starlin Castro have gotten buried and never come close to his red-hot September (1.202 OPS)? Could Javier Baez have showcased his all-around ability, either for the playoff roster, an offseason trade for pitching or the 2016 Opening Day lineup?
“You never know,” Hoyer said. “That’s the hardest part. You have to make decisions at the time not knowing what ripples in that pond are going to happen based on that move.”