WASHINGTON — Known for his smart sound bites and confident interviews, Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker struggled to find the words to explain the release of veteran closer Jonathan Papelbon.
Speaking at length about Papelbon’s professionalism and contributions to the team, it was clear how difficult the decision was to release him, late Friday night.
“It was a tough decision, and we let him go because there wasn’t a real fit anymore,” Baker told the media before the game on Saturday. “We didn’t know where to use him, Pap’ understood. He told us last night that he feels like he’s putting pressure on me and putting pressure on the bullpen, where guys have to pitch in innings that they wouldn’t have needed to ordinarily.
“So we let Pap’ go, we released him last night.”
Papelbon was in the spotlight throughout his 12-plus months in Washington, first displacing incumbent and effective closer Drew Storen, who was shipped to the Blue Jays after the season.
As the team began to swoon down the stretch last season, Papelbon was again thrust into the spotlight when he got into a verbal-turned-physical altercation with National League MVP Bryce Harper.
After taking Harper by the throat and needing to be separated by coaches and teammates, Papelbon was suspended by the team for the balance of the season. However, the team stood by him this offseason, bringing him back as he attempted to reach the 400-save milestone.
His results were up and down through 32 games, but his 19 saves and 2.56 ERA were getting the job done. Then the wheels fell off.
Over his next three appearances, his ERA ballooned to 4.41 and the team acquired Mark Melancon from the Pittsburgh Pirates. The team elected to release him instead of designating him for assignment, which would include a waivers process that could keep him off the diamond for 10 days, and possible off of playoff rosters.
“Pap’ was a professional. He’s never run from anything, he’s faced the music whether it was good or bad, and he handled it like a pro. This is what we expected from Pap’; even though it was tough letting him go,” Baker said. “Whether he pitches anymore, I don’t really know. I hope he does.
“He said, ‘If you ever need anything, or if we need him, please don’t hesitate to call.'”
Listen for Baker’s full pre-game audio: