Nationals left to decide what to do with Papelbon now

CLEVELAND - Jonathan Papelbon has blown more than a few saves in his career. Forty-nine of them, to be precise. So when it happens, he refuses to convey any sense of fear.

“My confidence in this game has never fluctuated, and it never will,” the 35-year-old closer said tonight. “I think that’s something that’s never really happened to me.”

Papelbon’s confidence may not fluctuate, but his opinion honestly isn’t the one that matters most right now. In the wake of his latest meltdown, a three-run bottom of the ninth that handed the Indians a 7-6 victory over the shell-shocked Nationals, the question isn’t so much whether Papelbon still has confidence in himself but whether his team still has confidence in him.

“It’s too soon after,” manager Dusty Baker said, perhaps 15 minutes removed from the disappointing turn of events. “I mean, that’s his job. That’s what he’s getting paid for. I don’t know. We just have to go back to the drawing board. It’s too early to say after the game.”

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Had this been one blip on an otherwise spotless resume, it would be easy to brush aside. But this meltdown came only two days after Papelbon gave up four runs (in what was a tie game when he entered) in the ninth inning of a loss to the Padres. And it came two-thirds of the way through a season that has featured several other shaky moments for a closer who seems to be living more off reputation right now than results.

Here are the pertinent facts as they stand right now...

- Papelbon owns a 4.18 ERA, second-worst among all MLB relievers with at least 20 save opportunities this season.

- Opponents are batting .268 against Papelbon, also the second-worst mark on that list.

- Papelbon has struck out 30 batters this season, again the second-worst total on the list of regular closers.

Making matters worse, Papelbon is getting beat right now not solely via base hits but via a lack of command as well. He has walked three batters (one intentionally) in his last 2/3 of an inning, including a leadoff walk tonight that kickstarted the Indians’ game-winning rally.

“He doesn’t have his command, which is evident when you walk the leadoff hitter,” Baker said. “But it’s like, what do you say? How does he look? Right now he doesn’t look like Pap. He doesn’t look very good. Usually he doesn’t walk people like that.”

There was more to this blown save (officially, Papelbon’s third in 22 chances this year) than the leadoff walk to Cleveland’s Jose Ramirez. There was the subsequent RBI double by Tyler Naquin, which left the Nationals’ lead down to one run. There was Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing error on a sacrifice bunt attempt, a particularly egregious mistake from someone whose throwing issues have been well-documented, that tied the game.

“I’ve got to make the play,” said Zimmerman, who was activated off the disabled list earlier in the day. “I think he made a pretty good bunt, deadened it pretty well, but I got to it in plenty of time. Obviously a play I have to make.”

Things turned odder after that. Papelbon (who was appearing in a game for the fourth time in five days) intentionally walked Lonnie Chisenhall to put runners on first and second with nobody out, then watched as Rajai Davis popped up his bunt attempt with so much authority that it actually cleared the infielders’ reach and landed for a single.

That’s when Baker made the decision to pull Papelbon from the game altogether and ask left-hander Oliver Perez to attempt to escape a nearly inescapable jam: Bases loaded, nobody out. Perez got the first batter he faced, but he then served up a single to Francisco Lindor past a drawn-in infield, sealing the Nationals’ fate on this night.

“I don’t think there’s necessarily one thing I could take back,” Papelbon said. “There were a few things I think I’d like to have back. But put that all together, and it makes for an inning like you saw tonight.”

So, what now? Baker may not have given a firm answer to the question, but Papelbon’s teammates (or, at least those who were asked about it) gave full support for their embattled closer.

“All I know is: I’m never going to give up on Pap,” said Gio Gonzalez, who would have been credited with the win if not for the ninth-inning blown save. “I think he’s still - and will be - one of the great closers in the game.

“It’s so easy for anybody to give up. I know people have given up on me all year. I would never, ever take that away from Pap. He’s one of the greats, and he deserves to be where he is. It happens. It’s part of baseball. ...

“He’s one of the guys that I want out there, no matter what, in the ninth inning. He’s the right guy for that job. I’ll take my chances with Pap any time.”

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