WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper is not quite sure what he could have done differently to avoid the dugout fight with teammate Jonathan Papelbon that resulted in the Washington Nationals suspending the closer for four games without pay.
“If you’re in a bar or if you’re in the dugout or if you’re anywhere,” Harper said Monday, a day after his scrap with Papelbon, “if someone grabs your neck, your first reaction is to do what I did, I guess.”
Harper, a leading NL MVP contender, also indicated he would be OK with Papelbon returning to the Nationals in 2016. The reliever has an $11 million guaranteed contract for next season.
“If ‘Paps’ can help us win a World Series next year, that’s what I need. That’s what this whole clubhouse needs,” Harper said. “We can’t be fighting or anything like that.”
Papelbon will miss the rest of this season. On Monday, he dropped his appeal of a three-game ban from Major League Baseball for throwing at an opponent’s head last week, and then missed Washington’s 5-1 victory over Cincinnati. After that punishment ends, Papelbon serves the Nationals’ suspension announced Monday.
Harper was held out of the home finale against the Reds for “his part in the altercation” with Papelbon, manager Matt Williams said.
Harper, though, said after Sunday’s game that he was scheduled to be off Monday, anyway.
Asked whether he was disappointed at the way the Washington portion of his season ended, Harper said: “I’ve got three more years at Nats Park.”
General manager Mike Rizzo said Papelbon’s more severe discipline made clear who the club felt “was more at fault.”
On Sunday, after Harper flied out in the eighth inning against Philadelphia, he headed to the dugout, where he and Papelbon 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 and members of Williams’ coaching staff pulled the pair apart.
“It’s been a very difficult 24 hours for the organization,” Williams said.
Williams was at the other end of the dugout and, he said Monday, was not aware of exactly what happened until later in the day, when he saw video that made the rounds on Twitter immediately after the scuffle. Williams said he hadn’t seen that video before his postgame news conference Sunday and hadn’t sought information from his coaches or other players during the game.
He added that because he was unaware of the extent of the confrontation, he sent Papelbon back out to pitch in the ninth inning.
“I thought it was odd,” Rizzo said of the reliever returning to the mound after the fight. “But there’s a lot of things going on in the dugout at the time. Matt missed it. He owned up to it.”
When he eventually did see video of Papelbon clutching at Harper’s neck, Williams said, “I was upset. I was appalled.”
But he also made it sound as if a truly bothersome aspect was that everyone saw what happened.
“Generally, this happens between players in the confines of a private clubhouse. It doesn’t happen in the open, generally,” Williams said. “So that being said, that’s how we would prefer to do it.”
Both Williams and Rizzo said they had no problem with the way Harper jogged to first base on the fly ball that preceded the skirmish.
“I’ve got no problem with his effort level (or) the way he hustles,” Rizzo said. “It is the job of the veteran players to point out what they think when you’re not playing the game right. ‘Pap’ must have felt that he wasn’t and he called him on it. It takes a guy with some guts to call a player out nowadays.”
Harper, Rizzo added, “did not deserve it, in my personal opinion.”
On Wednesday, the reliever plunked Baltimore star Manny Machado and was ejected; Harper called the hit-by-pitch “tired” and worried aloud about whether the Orioles would retaliate by beaning him.
Rizzo acquired Papelbon from the Phillies in a trade in late July in hopes of a possible postseason push.
“Will he be with us in 2016? He’s under contract,” Rizzo said about Papelbon. “We’re going to evaluate every moving part that we have after the season and we’ll make all those decisions once the final out is made in 2015.”
That applies to Williams’ status, too, Rizzo said.
The Nationals began the season as World Series favorites, but their playoff hopes officially ended Saturday, when the Mets clinched the NL East title.
“This has been a very disappointing season,” Williams said. “Everybody understands that.”
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich