WASHINGTON — For many years, Jonathan Papelbon played the role of Orioles' antagonist superbly during his most formidable days as the closer for the division-rival Boston Red Sox. With his steely glare and wacky persona, he's served as the perfect heel for O's fans.
And with one pitch Wednesday night -- a high-and-tight pitch headed for Orioles star third baseman Manny Machado's head -- the Washington Nationals reliever immediately injected life into an otherwise sleepy Beltway series.
Both dugouts at Nationals Park emptied in the ninth inning of the Orioles' 4-3 comeback win when Machado was hit on the left shoulder by a 93-mph fastball after Machado hit a go-ahead two-run homer in his previous at-bat.
As Machado slowly walked to first base, he glared toward the mound and yelled at Papelbon, who was immediately ejected from the game by home plate umpire Mark Ripperger. Orioles manager Buck Showalter played intermediary, sprinting out of the dugout to calm down his simmering third baseman as Papelbon argued his ejection with the umpires.
After the game, Machado was still steamed inside the Orioles clubhouse.
"[Someone] with more than 10 years in the game and he's going to go out there and throw at somebody's head," Machado said. "It's something that's uncalled for. It's [BS]. It's something that you don't do. I expect more from a guy like that with the [accomplishments] that he has. You've just got to go out there and keep playing baseball. It's part of the game. If you can't take the heat, just stay out of the kitchen and just go on from it. You don't throw at somebody's head. I think that's [BS]."
Machado and the Orioles still had the last laugh. Two innings earlier, Machado sent his 30th homer of the season rocketing into the left-center field stands off Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer.
But Papelbon's first pitch to Machado in the ninth was high and tight, and following a curveball, Papelbon pelted Machado, who yelled at Papelbon as he walked to first base.
"Pitchers out there, the ball can slip out of your hand, but when you throw at the head on first pitch right from the get-go, then you throw a curveball and then you throw again at the head, that's just [BS]," Machado said. "It's coward stuff. It's just cowardly."
Showalter, who said he had no doubt Machado was plunked intentionally, half-jokingly compared Papelbon's claim of innocence to "wrestlers [who] pulled somebody's hair and throw their hands up."
Papelbon didn't necessarily defend himself strongly, saying only that he believed Ripperger was influenced by the response from a pro-Orioles crowd late in the game.
"Perception is reality," Papelbon said. "If Manny thinks I hit him, then that's what he thinks. I'm not going to sit here and go back and forth whether I did or whether I didn't, cause it doesn't matter. If he thinks I did, that's what he thinks."
The Orioles hadn't done much against Scherzer — he struck out 12 over 6 2/3 innings -- but the Nationals stuck with the former American League Cy Young Award winner one pitch too long. With the Nationals fans on their feet, urging Scherzer to one final strike to complete seven innings, Machado sent Scherzer's season-high 122nd and final pitch into the D.C. night.
"He's one of the best pitchers in the game right now," Machado said. "He's battling the whole game, striking everybody out, making good pitches. I finally got a pitch to hit and I drilled it. It's one of the hardest balls I've hit all year and one of my hardest home runs."
It was undoubtedly among the Orioles' biggest blasts of the season — and they'll need more to keep their postseason hopes alive. Machado's homer whipped the Orioles dugout into a top-step frenzy.
"The dugout pretty much erupted," said Orioles starter Chris Tillman. "It was awesome, especially with [Scherzer] still out there. To get back on top and get us back in the game, it was a big swing."
Machado slowly stepped out of the batter's box before rounding the bases, then jogged back to his teammates and yelled an emphatic, "Let's go!"
"It was awesome," Machado said. "Every game counts right from now on. Every pitch. Every at-bat. We're down against one of the best in the game and you come up and do what you did. It's all emotion. He's striking guys out and walking around and doing the same thing we do when we hit. I think it's just coming to October. It's October baseball and everybody is fighting for a spot."
Papelbon said he didn't have a problem with Machado's slow trot from of the batter's box on his home run.
"No, I don't have a problem with it," Papelbon said. "If a guy takes someone deep, they want to do whatever they want, that's fine with me. That's baseball. Whether or not I'm out there and someone thinks I show them up with a fist pump or someone pimps a home run, that's baseball. Just play the game. Don't let the game, or let fans dictate otherwise. Play the game of baseball."
Showalter has implored his team to avoid scoreboard watching as the regular season winds down. They must first win games to make any of it matter.
But before Wednesday night's game, players couldn't help but peak at the clubhouse televisions showing the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Angels, two teams they're chasing for the second AL wild card, playing each other.
With their win and the Astros' loss, the Orioles (75-76) are now four games out of the second wild-card spot with 11 regular-season games left. The Orioles passed the slumping Indians, so there are now three teams in front of them vying for the second wild card spot.
"I haven't even looked at it," Showalter said of the wild-card standings. "I'm just trying to win every game and see where it takes us. But thanks for telling me, now I've got to grind on that. I'm trying the ignorance-is-bliss thing."
The Orioles, who clinched their fourth series win over their last five with Wednesday's win, have also won 10 of their last 14 games to give their playoff hopes late life.
"I've told you many times, this time of year it snowballs and our guys have not let it get away from them," Showalter said. "They've stayed in touch with the competition and crazier things have happened. You all have watched it. We're not going to give in."
Tillman (10-11) earned the victory despite losing a 2-1 lead with a 40-pitch fifth inning.
"It was frustrating to begin with," Tillman said. "I think the hitters let me know right away it wasn't good enough and I had to start making better pitches and we were able to do that and get to that point in the game where you feel like you've done the job."
After allowing the first three batters he faced in the game to reach base, Tillman took control early. He needed just 54 pitches to get through four innings and he retired 12 straight Nationals batters before issuing a one-out walk to Michael Taylor.
Wilson Ramos then tied the game, sending a 0-2 pitch down the left-field line, scoring Taylor from first to make it 2-2. Scherzer then singled to put runners at first and third and Anthony Rendon's sacrifice fly to right scored Ramos to give the Nationals a 3-2 lead.
Scherzer overcame an early deficit, holding the Orioles scoreless after yielding a two-run homer to Steve Pearce in the first inning.
First baseman Chris Davis had just drawn a full-count two-out walk when Pearce stepped to the plate. After working the count to 2-0, Pearce turned on a 95-mph high fastball and sent it into the left-field stands for his third homer over his last five games.
Machado, who has been involved in his share of controversy in the past, was involved in a heated argument with Ripperger following a called third strike call in the fifth. In an 0-2 count, Machado attempted to call for timeout, but Ripperger didn't give it to him and Scherzer threw a pitch down the middle for a called strike three. Machado went face-to-face with Ripperger before Showalter got between the two.
Rookie Mychal Givens tossed two perfect innings, retiring all six hitters he faced in the seventh and eighth. With closer Zach Britton still ailing with a lat muscle strain, Darren O'Day recorded his second save in as many days with a scoreless ninth.
Asked if he was concerned with any carryover into Thursday's series finale, Showalter said his team didn't do anything wrong.
"We just competed and put a good swing on a tough pitcher late in the game and our bullpen made it hold on, so I don't want them to do anything different," Showalter said. "Darren, believe me, has as competitive of blood as anyone in baseball. He knows Zach wasn't available again tonight and he knows he can't do something there that he'd probably like to."