Henry Rodriguez sat alone in the Nationals dugout this afternoon, staring out to the mostly empty field, his chin in his palm. He stood up and walked out to left field, where Brad Lidge was working out. Rodriguez plopped down to stretch and they chatted a while, a man who made his living closing games offering counsel to a younger one who, for the moment, no longer does.
Manager Davey Johnson made official what he hinted at last night after he pulled Rodriguez in the middle of another wild, ineffective ninth inning: Rodriguez is no longer the Nationals’ closer and instead will fill “a less demanding role,” Johnson said. Until Drew Storen returns around the all-star break, the Nationals will instead a use committee in the ninth inning, with Johnson’s nightly choice depending on match-ups and other considerations. Sean Burnett, Craig Stammen and Tyler Clippard figure to receive the most chances.
“I’m not eliminating anyone,” Johnson said. “As far as who my closer’s going to be, it’s just going to be when I get into a ballgame, see who’s fresh, which I like the matchups better. That’s the way I’ll go.”
Clippard, an all-star last season and the Nationals’ best reliever for the past two seasons, made clear he wants the opportunity to close. Clippard said he expressed to Johnson and other Nationals officials last year he felt he deserved the chance to move from set-up to closer.
“I want it bad,” Clippard said. “I’ve been fighting for the opportunity for three years now. I feel like I’ve been over-stepped a few times along the way for the opportunity to get those saves, for whatever reason. I don’t really know. But they have a plan and I trust their plan. We’ve had a good year this year and we’ve been winning. You can’t really go against the grain as far that stuff is concerned. But, yeah, I would love an opportunity.”
After Storen landed on the disabled list, Johnson said he preferred to keep Clippard in his role as a versatile, high-leverage set-up man who could pitch multiple innings. Clippard, though, has not recorded more than three outs in one appearance all season. After his heavy burden the past two years, “I’m not complaining,” Clippard said.
It does make Clippard wonder, though, why the Nationals have chosen other relievers to close in Storen’s absence. Clippard has even told Storen, his roommate and close friend, that he wants his job.
“He knows,” Clippard said with a smile. “I talk to him about it all the time. It’s not a secret. I said this before. If you’re a bullpen guy in the big leagues, in my opinion, you want to be a closer. That’s the premier job as a bullpen guy. If you’re not going to be a starter, you might as well want to do that. There’s no secret. It’s the kind of natural progression of anybody’s career. You want to be the best at what you do. In my opinion, the guys who are the best at what they do in the bullpen usually get closers jobs. That’s what you want to do.”
The Nationals’ best reliever this season has been Stammen. He pitched two more scoreless innings last night, giving him a 1.44 ERA in 25 innings with 27 strikeouts and four unintentional walks. Stammen was far more indifferent toward his role than Clippard, even ceding to Clippard without naming him.
“I’ll leave that up to” Johnson, Stammen said. “I did that in college, and it was pretty fun. We’ll see. I don’t think I’ve quite earned it yet. There’s other people in our bullpen that have done the job quite well over the years.”
The Nationals will return Rodriguez to his set-up role, where he thrived at the end of last season. Rodriguez’s control issues submarined his chances to remain the closer until Storen’s return. He allowed 13 walks and threw eight wild pitches in 18 innings this season, blowing three saves, losing another game that was tied and twice getting pulled mid-inning.
This afternoon, Rodriguez appeared dejected sitting in the dugout and declined to speak to a reporter. The Nationals believe he has too much talent – including a 100-mph fastball and a devastating slider – to give up on.
“He’s still young and he’ll still earn the right to close,” Johnson said. “Every inning as far as I’m concerned is just as important as the ninth inning. I don’t look at it as a demotion. I’m not sending him down. He’ll just be pitching in a different inning and basically where I have a little more backup in case it’s one of those days where he’s a little overly aggressive.”
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