After the sixth inning Friday night, Manager Jim Riggleman faced a familiar dilemma. The Nationals led by a run, having scored only a pair themselves. He had to decide where his starter’s night should end and his bullpen’s should begin. “That’s where we’ve been, night after night,” Riggleman said.
The dominance of Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen, the struggles of most other Nationals relievers and the woes of the Nationals’ offense has made protecting most any late-inning lead rife with decisions for Riggleman. Friday, he decided to take Jason Marquis out after 100 pitches and six one-run innings and hand the ball to Clippard with the plan to pitch him two innings.
This season, Clippard has pitched more than one inning in 15 of 28 appearances. The Nationals have needed it. He has probably been their best reliever (with Storen, having saved 13 games in 14 tries, in close competition), having struck out 46 in 37 1/3 innings, stranded 24 of 30 inherited runners and punched up a 1.91 ERA.
His ability to pitch multiple innings effectively makes him even more valuable. “But it’s also a problem,” Riggleman said. “We do not want to be in a situation where Clipp is always asked to go two innings. He’s had two days off. That two innings is not a strain on him. But it limits what you do the next two days.
“Somebody has got to step up and say, ‘I can take that seventh inning,’ and let Clipp take the eighth and Storen the ninth. We’ve dabbled around with that and we get teased a little bit. Somebody looks like they get ready to do it and then take a step backwards.”
Tonight, Riggleman will only be able to use Clippard for one inning, he said. And if Clippard throws two innings one day and one the next, the following day he won’t be available at all. Already, Clippard has been dealing with “a little bit of an overload,” Riggleman said.
“It’s something that I’ve been asked to do, and I’ve done it,” Clippard said. “I’m not complaining. It’s been a role that I’ve kind of got since I’ve gotten into the big leagues with the Nationals. I’m happy with it. I’m just going to get as many outs as they ask me to get.”
Riggleman has wanted to reach the point where each night, one reliever takes the seventh, Clippard pitches the eighth and Storen cleans up the ninth. But Sean Burnett, expected to be a key late-inning reliever, has compiled a 5.96 ERA. Henry Rodriguez has not been able to fill the void, either.
“We want to get to Clipp and Storen, of course,” Riggleman said. “We have a great feeling that these other guys are going to get it together here, too.”
While the rest of the bullpen has been an issue, the Nationals’ offense plays a key role, too. Last night, had the Nationals managed to score another run or two, Riggleman would have been more comfortable sending Marquis back to the mound. But in such a tight game, Riggleman put the game in the hands of Clippard.
“In a perfect world, we’d have a few runs on the board. Then, we’d say, ‘Jason, go back out there.’ ”
Riggleman could feel comfortable handing the ball to Clippard. But he also knows the Nationals need to find other ways to protect leads, or just build bigger ones.