On yet another night when the Mets tried their best to make the NL East race interesting, the Nationals lost yet another critical game on a home run following a difficult pitching decision made by their manager. Then, once a 4-3 loss to the Orioles was in the books, they found themselves at odds with each other after their closer was ejected for plunking the guy who hit that critical home run earlier, leaving their own star player worried for his own well-being.
Talk about a game that might as well encapsulate a late-season collapse that has nearly reached its inevitable finish line.
Officially, it was Manny Machado’s 2-run homer off Max Scherzer’s 122nd pitch of the night (a 98-mph fastball) that decided this game and ruined the Nationals’ golden opportunity to pick up a game on a Mets club that lost its second straight to the foundering Braves. That should’ve been the one and only storyline to this contest, with Matt Williams once again done in by a no-win decision to either leave a tiring starter on the mound or instead summon an unreliable reliever.
“When I challenged him with my best, he beat me,” Scherzer said. “I’ve got to tip my hat to him. He put a great swing on it. Sometimes you get beat. Tonight’s one of those nights.”
Except that wasn’t the end of the story, because of what happened two innings later when Machado stepped to the plate again, this time against Jonathan Papelbon.
Brought in for a rare appearance with his team trailing in the ninth, Papelbon retired the first two batters he faced, then threw his first pitch high and tight to Machado, who took his time rounding the bases after homering off Scherzer. There was no contact with the batter, but eyebrows immediately were raised.
Papelbon’s next pitch was a slider on the outside corner, called a strike to even the count. But then he came right back up and in with a fastball, this one drilling Machado in the left shoulder. The Orioles’ All-Star third baseman threw his bat away in disgust. Plate umpire Mark Ripperger wasted little time before ejecting Papelbon, a move that drew players and coaches from both dugouts onto the field, though neither side ever truly encountered the other.
“He thought it was intentional,” crew chief Brian O’Nora said of Ripperger, in his first season as a full-time MLB umpire. “That’s why he ejected him. That’s how it is.”
Machado didn’t mince words when asked about the incident afterward.
“It’s something that’s uncalled for,” he said. “It’s [garbage]. It’s something that you don’t do. I expect more from a guy like that, with the past that he has. You’ve just got to go out there and keep playing baseball. It’s part of the game. If you can’t take the heat, just stay out of the kitchen and just go on from it. You don’t throw at somebody’s head. I think that’s [garbage]. I think we’ve just got to keep playing baseball.”
Papelbon intimated that the plunking wasn’t intentional, though he didn’t deny the accusation, either.
“They just said they deemed it intentional. They didn’t give me any reason,” he said. “I don’t know if they have to give me a reason or not. But perception is reality. If Manny thinks I hit him, then that’s what he thinks. I’m not going to sit here and go back and forth whether I did or whether I didn’t, cause it doesn’t matter. If he thinks I did, that’s what he thinks.”
Perception indeed is reality, which is why Bryce Harper found himself speculating whether he’d be the victim of retaliation during Thursday’s series finale.
“I mean, Manny freaking hit a homer and walked it off, and somebody drilled him,” Harper said. “It’s pretty tired. It’s one of those situations where it happens. I don’t know. I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow. We’ll see what happens.”
Even Papelbon acknowledged the potential for something more to happen Thursday, though he made it clear he doesn’t think retaliation would be warranted.
“Whether they want to get somebody tomorrow, that’s up to them,” he said. “I think that’s today’s game, there’s no more. If you think that I get you, then I’m out there, come get me … and it’s done. It don’t carry on till the next day. That’s baseball.”
Whether the emotions between these two clubs carry over to the series finale remains to be seen. This much is certain: At a time when they should be fighting with a vulnerable division leader trying like crazy to provide a last-ditch opening in the season’s final two weeks, the Nationals now find themselves fighting with an interleague rival.
And, even worse, perhaps with themselves.