SAN FRANCISCO - Decisions, certainly the big ones with long-lasting ramifications, aren’t made minutes after a ballgame ends, when emotions are still running hot and the opportunity for reflection has yet to arrive.
So Dusty Baker wasn’t about to make any definitive statements about Jonathan Papelbon’s future role in the Nationals bullpen in the wake of Thursday night’s near-calamitous bottom of the ninth at AT&T Park.
“I don’t know,” Baker said. “You’re asking me some questions, and the game just ended. I don’t know at this point.”
Baker’s words in the aftermath of the game may not have said much, but his actions as the ninth inning played out spoke volumes. By pulling Papelbon with one out, two men on base and his team winning by three runs, the veteran manager was making it clear he has lost faith in his veteran closer.
And at this point, it’s hard to imagine Papelbon regaining Baker’s trust.
How does a manager give the ball back to the man who ranks ninth on baseball’s all-time saves list in any situation of consequence after taking the ball from him in such striking fashion?
It’s unclear what the Nationals would do, however, to remove Papelbon from the current equation. They could, in theory, release him and eat the roughly $3.7 million they still owe him this season. They also could decide to place him on the disabled list, given the fact his velocity has dropped in recent outings, with a fastball Thursday night that registered 88-89 mph on the stadium radar gun.
Papelbon insisted after the game that his arm feels fine. Whether it truly does, only he knows. But the Nationals probably wouldn’t be terribly upset if he admits some kind of physical ailment.
And what would the club do if Papelbon was taken out of the equation?
Obviously, general manager Mike Rizzo has been working the phones all week, trying to acquire late-inning relief help. Perhaps he’ll find a willing partner, one who will send the quality bullpen arm the Nationals need without insisting on receiving Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez or Trea Turner back.
If not, though, the club will have to figure out how to piece its bullpen together solely with what it already has in its organization. That could include Koda Glover, who impressed in his first two big league appearances last week but can only be recalled from Triple-A Syracuse once he spends 10 days there or a teammate becomes injured and unavailable to play.
It could also include Lopez, the odds-on favorite to start Saturday’s game against the Giants but considered by some in the organization as a potential flamethrowing weapon out of the bullpen come playoff time.
This much is certain: Papelbon is a mess right now, statistically the worst pitcher in the Nationals bullpen. And given the manner in which he was pulled from Thursday night’s game, it wouldn’t be shocking if we don’t see him pitching in a curly W cap again.