WASHINGTON – National League MVP front-runner Bryce Harper and teammate Jonathan Papelbon got into a fight during a game Sunday, when a Washington Nationals season that long ago spiraled out of control on the field did so in the dugout.
After a flyout in the eighth inning of what became a 12-5 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, Harper headed to the dugout, where he and Papelbon, the team's closer, exchanged words. The argument escalated, and Papelbon reached out with his left hand and grabbed Harper by the throat.
Papelbon then shoved the outfielder toward the bench with both hands, before teammates pulled the pair apart.
"I mean, he apologized, so, whatever," Harper said with a shrug afterward in the clubhouse, messy smears of eyeblack on his cheeks. "I really don't care."
Asked whether he had tangled with a teammate before, Harper responded: "Usually fighting the other team."
Papelbon said: "I'm in the wrong there. ... For me, I can't allow that to happen in the middle of a game. You can handle that after the games or allow the manager to handle that. So in that light of it, I'm wrong."
Nationals manager Matt Williams, whose highly touted team was officially eliminated from playoff contention Saturday, delivered terse answers during a briefer-than-usual postgame news conference.
"Certainly there's a lot of testosterone flowing among young men competing. What I can tell you is this: This is a family issue and we'll deal with it that way," Williams said. "There was an altercation in the dugout, and we'll leave it at that."
He said there hadn't been any discussion yet about whether the team might suspend Papelbon, who was acquired from the Phillies in a trade in late July in hopes of a possible postseason push.
On Wednesday, Papelbon plunked Baltimore star Manny Machado and was ejected from that game; afterward Harper called the hit-by-pitch "tired" and worried aloud about whether the Orioles would retaliate by beaning him. Papelbon was suspended for three games by Major League Baseball for hitting Machado but appealed, allowing him to continue playing.
On Sunday, Harper was replaced in right field for the ninth. He went 0 for 4 for the Nationals, who began the season as World Series favorites. Already out of the chase for a wild-card berth, their playoff hopes ended completely Saturday when the New York Mets mathematically clinched the NL East title.
Harper entered Sunday leading the league in batting average (.339), homers (41), slugging percentage (.663) and on-base percentage (.470).
Papelbon (4-3), who entered in the eighth, went back to the mound for the ninth in what was a 4-all game. He allowed five runs, including Andres Blanco's go-ahead, two-run homer.
Why did Williams keep Papelbon in the game after the scrap?
"He's our closer," Williams said. "That's all I'm going to say on the matter. He's our closer. In a tie game, he's in the ballgame in the ninth inning."
After Blanco's homer, Papelbon loaded the bases, hitting Odubel Herrera with his final pitch before being removed by Williams — and leaving the mound to a chorus of boos from the Nationals Park crowd of 28,661.
"Sometimes, emotions spill over and that's what happened today," Papelbon said. "It's happened for hundreds of years in this game and I think it will continue to happen."
When a reporter asked Phillies outfielder Jeff Francoeur if this was a good win for his team, he offered a wry reply: "Better fight."