Saturday night was supposed to be rock bottom for the Nationals. They were officially eliminated from playoff contention, thus putting to rest preseason expectations of a dominant team destined to win a World Series. But little did they know, just one day later matters would indeed get much, much worse.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon grabbed superstar Bryce Harper by the throat and drove him into the wall of the Nationals' dugout in Washington on Sunday in one of baseball's uglier incidents in recent years. The spat apparently began because Papelbon did not think Harper hustled his way to first on a flyout to left field in the eighth inning.
Harper walked back to the dugout as Papelbon stood on the top step and yelled at him. The two exchanged words before Papelbon took the incident to an unexpected level.
Both players described the fight as an isolated incident afterwards. Both players said it had nothing to do with Harper questioning Papelbon's decision to plunk Manny Machado in the team's game against the Orioles just days prior. Both players said it was simply a matter of tensions boiling over, of family members losing their cool.
Papelbon opened his discussion with reporters after the 12-5 loss with an apology and his explanation of what happened.
"First of all, I'll say I'm in the wrong there," he said. "You know, I grew up with brothers, he grew up with brothers. I view him as a brother of mine. Sometimes in this game there's a lot of testosterone and there's a lot of intensity that spills over and I think that happened today. For me, I can't allow that to happen in the middle of a game. You handle that after the games or allow the manager to handle that. In that light of it, I'm wrong."
Manager Matt Williams - who has come under fire this season for his team's underachievement - would not give much information on the matter whatsoever.
"Certainly there is a lot of testosterone flowing among young men competing. What I can tell you is this is a family issue and we’ll deal with it that way. There was an altercation in the dugout and we’ll leave it at that," he said.
Harper and Papelbon had a discussion before the media was allowed into the clubhouse and both players said they will be able to get over their differences.
"It was a good conversation that you need to have when the situations and the heat of the battle spills over," Papelbon said. "'Hey look, I'm wrong, you're right. You're right, I'm wrong.' Let's come back together and keep fighting together and come back next year and keep doing the same thing.' I think Bryce understands where I'm coming from and it's squashed and it's good and we're gonna move on."
"He apologized so whatever. I really don’t care," Harper added. "It’s like brothers fighting. That’s what happened. And hopefully move forward and do what I can for the next six days to have fun and play the game."
Papelbon, in fact, insists he and Harper's relationship will grow stronger from this incident. Papelbon is under contract for the 2016 season and, barring something unforeseen, will remain the team's closer for another year.
"We'll be good and we'll get better from this. I truly do think that we'll get better from this, our relationship will get better from this. Next year when we are in the thick of it and we are grinding together and big games mean something, we'll pick each other up," he said.