Since the Nationals bullpen was flipped upside down with injuries, relievers Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett have been stalwarts, bringing stability to the end of games. After another miserable, wild outing for then-closer Henry Rodriguez on May 21, Burnett became the primary setup man and Clippard assumed the closer’s role.
And since then, Clippard has been a perfect 11 in 11 save opportunities, allowing only one hit, and Burnett has been just as dominant. The reason for the success, Burnett said, was quite simply getting the opportunities to pitch in high-pressure, important late-game situations that they hadn’t before.
“Clip has earned the job the last few years he’s had, he’s earned the opportunity to close so someone had to step in there and pitch the eighth inning,” Burnett said. “I was hoping to get the opportunity to face lefties and righties and maybe get my own inning. They’ve given me the opportunity and I’ve tried to run with it as much as I can.”
Burnett, who struggled last season before switching to the first base side of the rubber and entered this spring training with a new approach, has been among the best relievers in baseball. He has a miniscule 1.08 ERA in 25 innings, and notched 13 holds and two saves. Since becoming the primary setup, eighth-inning man, Burnett has allowed only eight hits and two runs in 12 1/3 innings.
“I learned a lot last year when I struggled,” he said. “This year, I’m trying to stay aggressive and just attack the hitters.”
Clippard, an all-star last season and the team’s best reliever for the past two years, had been clamoring to be the team’s closer following the injuries. And so far, Clippard, whose large workload was a point of emphasis for Johnson entering this season, has seized his opportunity.
“Clip has been outstanding,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “When he closes his pitch count has been down. ... A lot of times he’s been around 10, 12 all the time. Setting up, he was in the 20s.”
Overall, the Nationals’ pitching staff leads the majors in earned run average (3.00), batting average against (.220) and the fewest base runners per inning (1.16 WHIP). Collectively, Nationals relievers are third-best in the National League with a 2.95 ERA — despite the injuries of last year’s closer Drew Storen and Rodriguez. Johnson said he will likely wait on Storen’s return until after the all-star break because there’s no rush given the success of his current relievers.
“I hope that people are thinking we’re pretty scary right now,” reliever Ryan Mattheus said. “We get Henry back, throwing strikes. He throws 100 and he’s got some of the best stuff in the business. Drew obviously, with 43 saves last year. So when those guys get back, it’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
In fact, because of the strength of the starting rotation, Mattheus said games have felt shorter. And when the bullpen gets the ball, they’ve shown that they can complete the task. When Storen and Rodriguez return, however, Johnson will have plenty to choose from to decide who gets what inning and who will serve in what role.
“I like to have a backup closers,” he said. “I’ve got backups to backups to backups. The good thing is it’s generally hard to find that guy because some guys don’t like to be in that ninth inning situation. My guys seem to revel in it.”
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