WASHINGTON — If the Washington Nationals harbor any resentment against Jonathan Papelbon for the way he carried himself in the bullpen, they are determined to keep it to themselves.
“He was a great teammate, he was popular with his teammates,” manager Dusty Baker said on Saturday, less than 24 hours after the team made the decision to release the deposed closer. “They knew that he had their backs and they had his.”
Ace Max Scherzer counted Papelbon among his friends and appreciated the veteran leadership he brought to the pitching staff.
“He meant a lot. He was a veteran clubhouse presence here, and he’s a guy who competes every single day,” Scherzer told the media. “He works extremely hard in the weight room, lifts, does his job and goes out there with an intensity that will be missed.”
Dating back to last year’s very public altercation with Bryce Harper, fans the media have suggested that Papelbon’s actions were a distration to the team. Scherzer wanted to set the record straight once and for all.
“That’s such a joke, guys. He’s not a distraction, whatsoever,” he said. “All that stuff last year was just media circus. We were 100 percent behind him. We understood his intentions and he was great for our team, great for everybody in our clubhouse. To sit here and say he was a bad teammate or anything like that, is garbage to me.
“Obviously, the front office is making decisions that’s best for this ballclub, and we believe in the front office. But from the human aspect of this and the human side of the game, Pap’s going to be missed in this clubhouse.”
General manager Mike Rizzo agreed with Scherzer, saying that it basically boiled down to a numbers game, with the team needing a fifth starter for the first time in several weeks.
“He never wavered in the clubhouse, he never wavered in his commitment to the team,” Rizzo said of Papelbon. “Every time he went out there, he pitched to the best of his ability.
“He’s a man’s man and a guy that takes on responsibility and doesn’t make any excuses. He realized that he wasn’t performing up to his capabilities the last week or 10 days or so.
“This guy is a pro’s pro and a guy who has been a great teammate. He was loved in the clubhouse and he’ll be missed.”
Leadership was a major intangible consideration for the Nationals to balance against getting more quality pitching to the big league staff. Now that he is removed from the bullpen, the average age of Nationals relievers drops significantly.
How that plays out remains to be seen.
“You don’t know [how much impact it will have]. You don’t know until later,” admitted Baker. “Experience does count for something. Experience counts for a lot.
“I just hope that he have enough guys that have been in this stretch and in the fire.”
After Papelbon’s departure, Matt Belisle and Oliver Perez become the older statesmen in the bullpen.
“It’ll depend more on guys like [Shawn] Kelley,” Baker pondered aloud. “It’ll depend on guys like Matt Belisle, who is one of the veterans down there who has been through this, and the guys that have been through to the World Series and postseason.
“Whenever one leader leaves, another one arises.”
Kelley was signed to the Nationals after the fallout from last season and says he was surprised to hear anyone think Papelbon was anything less than a leader.
“He was a great teammate. I never saw a distraction that whole time I played with him here this year,” Kelley told the media. “He was a great teammate and it’s tough to see him go.
“We have to focus on who is in this room and who is going forward. He was a big part of that up to this point. We focus on the 25 guys tonight that are going to help us to win the game, and we move on.”
Before leaving, Papelbon assured the Nats that he would be interested in returning, if the need arose and he had not yet found another Major League opportunity.
“We wish Pap’ the best, he wished us the best. He wanted us to win it, that was his parting words,” Baker said. “He was a big part of what we had accomplished already.”
Listen to Scherzer’s full comments on Papelbon, below: