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Posted at 01:39 PM ET, 08/23/2012

Washington Nationals: The importance of days off


Closer Tyler Clippard is one of many Nationals players who could really benefit from a couple of off days. (Jonathan Newton - The Washington Post)
Since the All-Star Game, the Nationals have played 41 games in 41 days. Now, they get two off days in the span of five days, with rest on Thursday and Monday. Those two days of rest have lots of ramifications. That’s typical of pennant races. What once seemed inconsequential may now turn out to be unexpectedly important.

“Much needed,” said reliever Craig Stammen, one of the team’s unsung stawarts with a 6-1 record, 2.40 ERA and a dozen more innings worked than anyone else in the bullpen. “You have no idea how good that feels.”

“Yeah!” said Tyler Clippard, overhearing Stammen.

The closer has pitched in more than half of those 41 games (21), saved 14, blown three saves (only one a loss) and had a poor 4.29 ERA.

Faced with so many pressure situations, his changeup usage has risen to 36 percent from 27 in ’11. The pitch is his best and “easy on my arm.” It’s also made him hard to hit (.188 since the break) with lots of strikeouts (27 in 21 innings), but also a bit wild and, for some reason, homer prone with all four of his ’12 gopher balls since the break.

The day off may also help to clear the heads of the Nats who took Wednesday’s fail-to-sweep loss quite hard. Three Nats, talking together, said that a 2-1 loss would have been hard, like all one-run defeats; but what really bothered the team was the three sloppy runs that the Braves had gotten in the top of the ninth — including two Nats errors, a wild pitch and a stolen base.

They wanted the Braves to leave thinking that, even when the Nats lost, they were breathing down their necks and seldom made mistakes. Instead, the Nationals left the impression that they could be rattled. “We’ve played so well so long [28-13],” said one. “That’s not the taste you want to leave.”

The obvious impact of the unusual schedule (many teams never stumble into two off days in a span of five days) is that the bullpen will get rest that is almost desperately needed. But two starters, Stephen Strasburg and Ross Detwiler will each get a full week of rest before their next start.

That may not seem like much. But by late August, it’s a summer vacation for your arm, especially since Strasburg is in his first full season back from elbow surgery and the gangly Detwiler’s stats have sometimes flagged when he had to take his regular turn as a starter many times in a row. Will the extra days off throw the Nats’ rotation slightly out of sync when it comes to precise command in their first start back? Or will the breather, especially in the case of Strasburg, who pitched once a week in college, gin him up for his final five- or six-start push before his shutdown?

Here you thought that a small oddity in a schedule couldn’t make much difference. When a team stinks, it doesn’t. Who cares? When a club leads its division by six games, but is unaccustomed to such heights and has just had the hottest, most exciting, but also most exhausting stretch of games in its short Washington history, it all has pennant-race spin. What was once dopey or irrelevant becomes interesting when it actually matters. That’s a core aspects of baseball that fans stuck in eternal bad-team towns never grasp.

The off days also, accidentally, cause some interesting flukes in which pitchers will oppose the Nats in their next five games in Philadelphia and Miami. The Nats miss the three best starters on those staffs — Cole Hamels, Josh Johnson and Mark Buerhle, while getting shots at Kyle Kendrick, Ricky Nolasco and, probably, Wade LeBlanc (career 19-25). Will they capitalize? That’s their problem. They get the chance. That’s the good break.

Not so lucky for D.C. is the decent play of the freakin’ Phillies, who are four games over .500 since the all-star break. Sure, they traded away Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence, Joe Blanton and lost Carlos Ruiz and Placido Polanco to the disabled list. But they got Chase Utley and Ryan Howard back and, once they were dead, stopped choking their brains out.

The Nats now face the Phils nine times in the last six weeks. Is that a break since the Phils, as presently constituted and lamed, shouldn’t match the Nats? Or does “spoiler” seem like the perfect identity for a Philadelphia team that ruled the NL East for the last five years but now has little reason to set the alarm clock except to annoy the team that may supplant them?

While the Nats got to play golf on Thursday — many, including manager Davey Johnson had early tee times at the Lerner’s home course, Woodmont — the Braves fly coast-to-coast to continue a 10-game road trip.

“Can’t believe I gotta give Davey strokes,” groused Ryan Zimmerman.

The Braves catch a break on their four-game visit to the hot Giants; they miss ace Matt Cain. But they do get both the Giants lefties — Barry Zito and Madison Bumgarner — which usually causes Atlanta problems.

Sunday, however, looks like a pro-Brave overlay in a match of “Tims” — steady Brave ace Hudson against “Big Time Timmy Jim” Lincecum, who may be well past his prime at age 28. Memo to the Let Strasburg Pitch bunch: Look at Lincecum’s won-lost progression with relentless he-is-indestructible work loads — 18-5, 15-7, 16-10, 13-14 and 7-13. Strasburg is now 15-5 this year. Today’s decisions impact those next few W-L numbers.

There’s much more. For instance, these are the top five teams in winning percentage so far this year, excluding all games pitched by Strasburg: the Reds .608, Nats .596, Rangers .585, Yanks .581 and Braves .573. The Nats are better with Strasburg (18-7). But, in the post-season, when they’d only need four starters — the people who’ve produced a 59-40 record in non-Strasburg games — they’d still be as legitimate Series contender as anybody.

But then that’s the absolute best surprise about a winning baseball team. When they were a misery, almost nothing about them was interesting. Now, there’s always much, much more that’s tasty and worth digesting.

More from The Washington Post

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Hamilton: There’s something about the Nats

Chipper Jones’ man-crushes

Could Harper play less?

Nationals fail to pull off sweep of Braves

By  |  01:39 PM ET, 08/23/2012

 
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