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Ugly incident speaks to Nats' organization-wide problem

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Ugly incident speaks to Nats' organization-wide problem

Had Sunday afternoon’s dugout fracas at Nationals Park been a purely isolated incident, it might be easy to shrug it off as one of those unfortunate things that happens every once in awhile in sports. Teammates get into a heated argument, one goes after the other, everybody else rushes in to break it up. This certainly wasn’t the first time that scene has played out, whether in public or private view.

Trouble is, this wasn’t isolated. In hindsight, it kind of feels like it had been brewing for awhile. And worse, the manner in which it was handled — both at that moment and then throughout the rest of the evening — spoke to an even larger problem: The Nationals as an organization are out of touch with reality.

Everyone’s at fault here. Of course it begins with Jonathan Papelbon, who was completely out of bounds in confronting Bryce Harper about a perceived lack of hustle and then in physically attacking his teammate. But it also extends to the Nationals’ clubhouse as a whole lacking in a leader, someone who already would have set a tone for how things should be done.

And then it moves on to Matt Williams, who clearly has to know he’s fighting for his job at this point yet has failed through both his words and actions to display the kind of leadership qualities that would give the front office valid reason to retain him.

But it doesn’t stop there. Keep climbing up the ladder to Mike Rizzo, who made the trade for Papelbon despite obvious red flags that gave just about every outside observer reason to question the deal, and who has too often prioritized individual talent over roster cohesion while building his ballclub.

And then take that final step up to the top, to an ownership group that despite learning many things in its near-decade at the helm still comes across as tone-deaf in matters of both major and minor significance.

Maybe the best word to describe it all is this: Arrogance.

The Nationals have accomplished great things over the last four years. Say what you want about the disappointment of missing the playoffs in both 2013 and 2015, but what qualifies as disappointment around here is 83-to-86 wins. That’s markedly better than any of the franchise’s first six seasons in the District, when the mere notion of a winning record was cause for celebration.

Yet this organization, from top to bottom, too often acts like it has accomplished far more than it really has. The Nationals fly the largest division championship banner in baseball, high above the scoreboard in right-center field. (The 2012 NL East champions banner still resided up there throughout the 2014 season, long after they had ceded the title to the Braves.) They boast no fewer than three highly visible reminders to the world that they’ll be hosting the 2018 All-Star Game, an event that won’t take place for another 34 months. They spent the entire first half of this season playing intentionally annoying slow-jams over the PA system when the opposing team took batting practice, for no reason other than to thumb their noses at the rest of the league. They continue to show replay after replay after replay of Jayson Werth’s walk-off homer in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS — an admittedly wonderful baseball moment — while completely ignoring what happened only 24 hours later to render that moment a mere footnote.

Rizzo has a sterling track record as a front-office exec, and he single-handedly is responsible more than anybody else for turning a 100-loss joke of an organization into one of baseball’s most-competitive franchises. But he also has let ego get in the way of sound baseball decisions at times, whether in trading away Jerry Blevins for taking the club to arbitration over a $200,000 difference in salaries, in assuming a roster of productive-but-oft-injured veterans would somehow be able to stay in one piece all season or in ignoring the domino effects of acquiring big-name players who would bump popular rank-and-file guys from their roles. Yes, the additions of Max Scherzer, Rafael Soriano, Edwin Jackson and Papelbon made the Nationals’ roster stronger, but what ended up happening to Tanner Roark, John Lannan and Drew Storen (twice) as a result? What message did any of those moves send to the rest of the clubhouse?

Williams, meanwhile, has attempted to maintain a veneer of steadiness throughout his tenure as manager. He refuses to look back, look ahead or put any situation into a larger context. But it’s impossible to do that in reality. Every individual situation fits somehow into the bigger picture. What happened last night does impact what happens tonight and tomorrow. Some wins are bigger than others. Some losses most definitely are worse than others. And a manager has to be able to convey that, to recognize that sometimes you bring in your “eighth-inning guy” to pitch the seventh, that it’s OK (actually, it’s necessary) to acknowledge when you’ve been eliminated from the pennant race and admit how disappointing that is to you.

And above all else, a manager has to understand that when your closer physically attacks a teammate in the dugout, he simply can’t be allowed to take the mound again the next half-inning. No matter the score. No matter how many games back you are. No matter how much of the incident you actually saw with your own eyes or not. If Williams truly didn’t see the full extent of Sunday’s incident, he has no excuse for not getting a full and immediate report from one of his coaches (several were right in the thick of it, separating Papelbon and Harper).

If these last few weeks served as an opportunity for Williams to prove himself worthy of the job, to prove himself the kind of leader Rizzo has believed for more than a decade he would be, he hasn’t come close to making the most of it.

As for Papelbon … well, the short-term answer should be simple. He needs to drop his appeal of his 3-game, MLB-imposed suspension for intentionally throwing at Manny Machado’s head. Now. And then he needs to not appear in any of the Nationals’ four other remaining games this season.

The long-term answer isn’t nearly as simple. The Nationals already were facing a major bullpen overhaul this winter before this incident. Now they have no choice but to consider dumping Papelbon, who is under contract for 2016 and owed $11 million. Trouble is, he still has the same no-trade clause that made it difficult for the Phillies to deal him in the first place. His value obviously has diminished. And $11 million is a whole lotta money to flush down the toilet.

Yet how do the Nationals move forward with Papelbon as part of the equation? Can they really expect to make another run in 2016 with him holding a prominent position, carrying this kind of baggage?

Here may lie the ultimate test of the organization’s aforementioned arrogance. Can Rizzo, Ted Lerner and Co. admit the colossal mistake they made this summer, no matter how much it stings their pride and their bank account?

If so, perhaps it will serve as the first evidence of a franchise truly committed to changing how it operates. No more arrogance. No more bragging. No more inviting derision from the rest of the baseball world.

It’s time for the Nationals to admit they have not accomplished great things yet. They’ve taken plenty of big steps over the last decade. But they haven’t taken the final step. And until they do, they’re just another franchise trying to join the big boys’ club, required to show some much-needed humility for once.

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The Nationals bullpen no one expected -- or probably wanted -- is here

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The Nationals bullpen no one expected -- or probably wanted -- is here

Fernando Rodney shot off an imaginary arrow June 25, 2019, in a Nationals uniform while on the infield in Miami. He had just finished the ninth inning of a game Max Scherzer dominated. Hop in a time machine, go back to the offseason, say those words over and secure your head so it does not explode.

The current eight living in Washington’s woebegone bullpen includes half of the season’s Opening Day bullpen. Closer Sean Doolittle, Matt Grace, Wander Suero, and specialist Tony Sipp are the only ones to make it from late March to late June. None have an ERA below 3.00. One (Doolittle) has an ERA below 4.00. In normal circumstances, Grace, Suero, and Sipp would not have made it this far.

But this is not a normal bullpen year for almost anyone in baseball. It’s not even normal for a Washington organization annually confounded by how to put together a top-end relief group. In the midst of a push back toward relevancy, the Nationals brought the 42-year-old Rodney and three-time Tommy John recipient Jonny Venters into the bullpen. They joined Javy Guerra, 33, who was released by Toronto before Washington snagged him, and Tanner Rainey, who came from Triple-A out of necessity. It’s an interesting bunch.

Suero and Guerra were set to be the only bullpen members needed Wednesday in Miami during the Nationals’ 7-5 win. That was before Guerra allowed four runs in the bottom of the ninth and Doolittle had to come in to finish the game -- again.

Patrick Corbin pitched seven innings and allowed a run. Washington is a game under .500 and winners of 20 of the last 29 (that’s a .690 winning percentage; a 112-win pace across a full season).

Drag your brain back to the March 28 opener against the New York Mets. Justin Miller was back for a second season after surprising most with an effective 2018. Kyle Barraclough was lined up to be the seventh-inning reliever. Trevor Rosenthal was throwing 98 mph. 

All premises around the trio have since collapsed. Which is part of the reason Rodney and Venters are now in the mix.

From Mike Rizzo’s perspective, bringing Rodney and Venters up now makes sense. It’s low-risk. Putting them on the mound while the team is trending in the right direction -- and dealing with a soft schedule -- enables him to take a look at assets already in-house. Rizzo likely has three plans here: Give Rodney and Venters a shot. If they work, he is able to bolster the bullpen while holding onto assets. If they don’t, cutting them is a low-cost move and space opens for Fresno closer Dakota Bacus, who was named to the Triple-A All-Star Game on Wednesday. Maybe even another dice roll with one of the remaining veterans in Fresno. If none of that works, hop into the fray for a reliever via trade.

Acquiring another reliever this season will be more of a challenge than in the past. The second wild-card spot is having the kind of influence Major League Baseball hoped it would. Coming into the night, the Nationals were three games out of the wild card. Six other teams were within 4 1/2 games of the second National League wild-card position. They need bullpen help as well, creating a competitive mish-mash. 

It’s less cramped in the American League. Four teams are within four games of the second wild-card.

Expect to hear these relief names attached to trade rumors: Ken Giles, Will Smith, Felipe Vazquez, Ty Buttrey, Hansel Robles, Shane Greene, Trevor Gott, Nick Anderson, Cam Bedrosian, and Reyes Moronta. All could be on the move before the July 31 trade deadline. The Nationals would be pleased with any of them. 

For now, they have the bullpen no one expected. Rodney has the imaginary arrows. Suero and Grace have bloated ERAs. Guerra made his 13th appearance Wednesday. Barraclough remains sidelined. Rosenthal is looking for work. 

Rizzo has overhauled half of the group. Further work remains.

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Nationals to wear throwback Expos signature powder blues on July 6

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Nationals to wear throwback Expos signature powder blues on July 6

Bring out the powder blues!

In the decade and a half since the Nationals franchise relocated from Montreal to Washington, D.C. in 2005, the Nationals have only worn throwback uniforms honoring the Washington Senators, who played in the Nation's Capitol from 1901-1960 before the franchise moved to Minnesota and became the current Minnesota Twins. They have not once worn any Expos throwbacks.

That all changes on July 6, when the Nationals will sport the signature Montreal Expos powder blue uniforms against the Kansas City Royals as the Nationals celebrate the franchise's 50th anniversary, according to the Washington Post.

The uniform features powder blue jerseys and pants, with the tri-color red, white, and blue signature Expos cap.

The Royals will also be donning throwback uniforms from their inaugural 1969 season, taking the field in their original road grey uniforms with a cursive "Kansas City" across their chest in Royal blue.

The Nationals are honoring the Expos in more ways than just sporting their old uniforms. Nationals Park will also be going through a makeover, as the Expos 'M' will replace the Nationals 'Curly W' across the park for the afternoon. Additionally, concessions will offer traditional Canadian food, such as poutine, Montreal smoked brisket sandwiches and more. 

Expos legend Vladimir Guerrero will also be in attendance. Other members of the Nationals, such as manager Dave Martinez, third base coach Bob Henley, and MASN broadcaster F.P. Santangelo will be honored for their contributions to the Expos as well.

July 6 should be an exciting day at Nationals Park.

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