For a second consecutive night, Tyler Clippard looked different, not at all like the dominant reliever who had seemingly found his calling as a closer and was near perfect in the role. He hadn’t allowed a home run in 39 1 / 3 innings and was a perfect 14 for 14 in save opportunities entering Tuesday’s game, and now he has blown a save, gotten dangerously close to doing it again and allowed three home runs in two innings since.
Manager Davey Johnson stated without hesitation that Clippard would remain his closer — and there’s little reason yet to believe he won’t remain in that role. What may be contributing to Clippard’s recent struggles, Johnson said, is that transitioning into the more demanding role of a closer may be more draining for Clippard, who was primarily a setup man the past two seasons.
“I tried to stay off Clip because he’d thrown a lot of innings last year when I got here, so giving him every other day,” Johnson said. “Then once you go into the closer’s role and you’re pitching every day, you’re throwing every day, that’s a big change. He’s had a lot of work lately, but his velocity was still up there. A couple pretty good hitters were looking for a fastball, going to cheat, jump. He got bushwhacked.”
Because he was working with a three-run lead, Clippard said he could be more aggressive. He tossed a first-pitch fastball to David Wright, who smashed it to right field for a solo home run. Then, Clippard threw mostly fastballs, and relied less on his heavily-used change-up to strike out the next two batters.
Clippard’s first pitch following the home run was a wild pitch nowhere near the plate — and for a moment, the normally calm closer appeared a littled rattled. Jason Bay pounced on his first-pitch fastball, too, driving it to left field for another solo home run. Clippard notched his 15th save in 16 tries on the third strikeout of the inning on a change-up to Jordany Valdespin, who hit one of those pitches out for a three-run home run the night before.
“I wanted to stay aggressive,” Clippard said. “I didn’t want to walk anybody or allow anybody on base and stay away from the big inning. I made a couple bad pitches just up in the zone out over the plate to some good hitters and they got me.”
Veteran closers in the past have come to Johnson and asked for occasional off days, he said. But Clippard hasn’t done that. On Thursday, Johnson said he would try to stay away from using his closer to give him some time off. In two nights, Clippard has thrown 43 pitches, most of them in Tuesday’s blown save. Clippard insisted that the workload hasn’t taken a toll on him.
“I haven’t really noticed any difference physically,” he said. “I feel good mentally out there every time. I enjoy it. I enjoy being out there in the ninth. It’s a good thing for me mentally. Physically it’s been OK. I feel good.”
Since becoming the Nationals primary closer on May 22, Clippard has pitched in back-to-back games six times over a span of 20 games. In a series against the Boston Red Sox in early June, he pitched in three straight games. In the second game of any of these back-to-back games, Clippard wasn’t any less effective or labored more.
Catcher Jesus Flores said there was nothing different about how Clippard pitched on Wednesday night compared to his stronger outings. And the fact division opponents see Clippard more often likely wasn’t a factor.
“I would say the hitters he faced were the same as last night,” Flores said. “They knew his best pitch was a change-up and we were going to challenge with a fastball, so they right away swing the first pitch and they found it up. They’re good hitters, too. It’s going to happen.”
Added Clippard: “I feel like I’ve been around long enough where most teams know what to expect from me. It’s just up to me to make the right pitches in the right situation to keep them off balance enough to not get comfortable in there.”
Johnson has often talked about having an “A” closer and a “B” closer, almost like a backup or fill-in. With work-in-progress Henry Rodriguez in a less demanding role now and veteran Brad Lidge gone from the team, Johnson doesn’t have his desired secondary closer. Drew Storen, who saved 43 games for the team last season, could fill that role when he returns, likely this week, and help alleviate some of the workload that Johnson feels that Clippard is experiencing.
FROM TODAY’S POST
Jordan Zimmermann continues his consistency and dominance in a Nationals 4-3 win over the Mets, Adam Kilgore writes. And, they’re 17 games over .500, the season’s new high-water mark.
Davey Johnson is having one of the best seasons of his career as a manager, extracting offense from even the little guys, Thomas Boswell writes.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 5, Pawtucket 1: Corey Brown went 3 for 5 and drives in two runs on a home run. Right-hander Jeff Mandel allows only one run on six hits over eight innings.
Akron 6, Harrisburg 5: Designated hitter Chris Rahl went 1 for 5, hitting a three-run home run. Starter Ryan Perry allowed four runs, one earned, over six innings.
Lynchburg 6, Potomac 2: On a rehab assignment, Chien-Ming Wang allowed three runs on three hits over four innings, striking out one and walking two.
Hagerstown is off.
Auburn 7, Williamsport 5: Shortstop Wes Schill went 3 for 4 and drove in two runs, and left fielder Estarlin Martinez added two hits and two runs.