As Tyler Clippard applied ice to his right shoulder Sunday evening, he told athletic trainer Lee Kuntz, “I’m back to my old self.” Manager Davey Johnson has focused this season on normalizing Clippard’s workload after two seasons of borderline abuse out of the bullpen. Before this weekend, Clippard had pitched on consecutive days only twice this year.
But the Nationals played three taut, close games at Fenway Park, and they needed Clippard in all three games during their sweep of the Red Sox. And so for the first time this year, Clippard pitched three consecutive days, earning the save in all three victories. Sunday, he recorded his toughest save yet, his first chance to hold a one-run lead. Bullpen coach Jim Lett told Johnson afterward, “You may need to put him in tennis shoes tomorrow.”
For Sunday, Clippard showed no signs of strain. In the bullpen, he took almost no time at all to warm up. “It was pretty close today, and I did it on purpose,” he said. “I wanted it to be close, because I didn’t want to throw too many pitches.”
He yielded a one-out walk to Kevin Youkilis, bringing the winning run to the plate twice. But he struck out the side, whiffing Nick Punto, Scott Podsednik and Dustin Pedroia.
“I felt good,” Clippard said. “It’s a little sore, but it’s normal soreness. After I got through the month of April, I’ve been feeling really good. There was no problem today.”
There has been no problem lately on any day for Clippard. In his nine appearances since taking over for Henry Rodriguez, Clippard has taken to the role he wanted. He is 8 for 8 in save chances. In 8 1/3 innings, Clippard has allowed no runs on one hit and a walk while striking out nine.
“He’s been letter-perfect,” Johnson said.
His save Sunday provided a last-minute adventure. Clippard began his at-bat against Pedroia by throwing him an inside change-up, which he took for strike one. Clippard wanted to broaden the plate and get Pedroia reaching, so he threw a change-up outside for a ball and a fastball out, a called a strike. “I set him up good,” Clippard said.
After the second strike, though, Red Sox Manager Bobby Valentine screamed from the dugout, and home plate umpire Al Porter ejected him. Valentine charged out of the dugout and argued for several minutes, delaying a one-run game in the ninth inning, with two outs and two strikes.
At the time, Clippard thought little of the tirade and focused on the next pitch. In retrospect, he called the outburst “a little surprising.”
“If anything, I think he froze his own guy more than me or our team,” Clippard said. “We had the upper hand in that situation. So if you’re going to delay the game or anything, you’re taking your own guy out of rhythm, which maybe he did a little bit. It was a good pitch, I thought. It was right on the black. You’ve kind of got to let the game play out. But it was what it was.”
When the dust settled, Clippard fired a fastball, which Pedroia fouled off. He is a pest of a hitter, a batter who is making contact this year on 85 percent of his swings. Clippard had 24 pitches in the inning. For his 25th, he threw the pitch that the entire at-bat had led to, a low change-up that veered inside. Pedroia swung over it for strike three, falling to one knee.
Clippard pumped his fist and embraced catcher Jesus Flores. His third save in three days was complete, and his workload had brought back memories.
“Hopefully,” Clippard said, “I get tomorrow off.”
FROM THE POST
The Nationals have arrived, Boz writes.
The Nationals swept the Red Sox with a 4-3 victory provided by Bryce Harper’s dash around the bases.
FROM THE WEEKEND’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Lehigh Valley 5, Syracuse 2: Mark Teahen went 2 for 5 with a double. John Lannan allowed five runs in five innings on nine hits and no walks, striking out three. He’s 5-6 with a 5.27 ERA.
Reading 5, Harrisburg 4: Eury Perez went 0 for 5 with three strikeouts. Tim Pahuta went 3 for 4. Paul Demny allowed three runs in four innings on five hits and four walks, striking out three.
Salem 3, Potomac 2: Chris Marrero, coming back from the torn hamstring he suffered this winter, went 2 for 4 in a rehab assignment. In four games with Potomac, Marrero is 6 for 14 with a double and a home run. Also on rehab, Ryan Mattheus allowed two solo home runs in one inning. Justin Bloxom went 2 for 4. Trevor Holder allowed one run in five innings on four hits and five walks, striking out three.
Kannapolis 6, Hagerstown 2: Matt Purke allowed three earned runs in 5 2/3 innings on three hits and four walks, striking out five. Steve Souza went 1 for 4 with a double.