WASHINGTON -- The reality show that is the Washington Nationals bullpen continues to produce can't-miss drama. Earlier Friday, Major League Baseball issued a three-game suspension to closer Jonathan Papelbon for intentionally throwing at the head of Baltimore Orioles All-Star Manny Machado on Wednesday night.
Papelbon did not address the media prior to Friday's game against the Philadelphia Phillies (his former team). As for manager Matt Williams, he was brief and somewhat dismissive when asked for his thoughts about his closer's punishment. "It is what it is," he said. "Listen, my job is to try to help us win games here. It's not my call. So we will deal with the rules as they sit and the decision that's made."
The suspension of Papelbon, who is appealing the decision and is available for Friday night's series opener, is the latest in a series of bizarre bullpen-related plot twists that has helped derail the Nats' once-promising season.
Prior to the July 28 acquisition of Papelbon, a six-time All-Star whose 349 saves are third-most among active players, the Nationals were 52-45 and led the New York Mets by two games in the National League East. Since then, Washington is 26-29, has fallen to 7½ games behind the Mets and is all but eliminated from playoff contention. At the center of the team's tumble is a bloodied bullpen that hasn't been the same the past couple of months.
Following the arrival of Papelbon, incumbent closer Drew Storen, who had converted 29 of 31 save chances prior to the trade, was demoted to eighth-inning duty, where he was a shadow of himself. Before the trade, Storen had a 1.73 ERA and allowed just one home run in 36 1/3 innings. After the trade, Storen posted a 6.75 ERA and gave up three homers in 18 2/3 innings.
Storen struggled so mightily that earlier this month, following a loss to the Mets in which he allowed a go-ahead home run to Yoenis Cespedes, he slammed his locker in frustration and broke his right thumb, effectively ending his season.
He's not the only Nationals reliever who has been scuffling since the Papelbon deal. Prior to July 28, veteran righty Casey Janssen, pitching primarily in the eighth inning, had been effective in a setup role, posting a 2.95 ERA and 0.89 WHIP. Since the trade, pitching mainly in the seventh inning, Janssen has been lit up to the tune of a 6.88 ERA and a 1.47 WHIP, and his home run rate has more than tripled.
As a unit, including Thursday's come-from-ahead loss to the Orioles, the bullpen has blown seven saves in the past 25 days, tied for most in the majors. Meanwhile, Papelbon has recorded just seven saves since coming to Washington, tied for 25th in the majors in that span.
"Everything just snowballed on us as a group," Janssen said. "This season is one that's going to be a head-scratcher for us and one that kinda got away."