The Nationals’ 12th win in 17 games kept them within squinting distance of the Cincinnati Reds in the race for the National League’s second wild-card spot. The Reds lost Tuesday to the St. Louis Cardinals, which counted as the Nationals’ biggest edge. Their next 18 games will come against the Marlins (who soon will be shutting down ace Jose Fernandez), the New York Mets (who lost Matt Harvey and just traded Marlon Byrd) and the Philadelphia Phillies (who fired their manager earlier this month). The Reds, meanwhile, will play 14 of their final 29 games against teams currently in the playoff picture.
“We’ve all been through our ups and downs,” said shortstop Ian Desmond, who drilled an RBI single. “Obviously, the downs were pretty heavy this year. But we fought our way, and we’re starting to play better. Obviously, we’re not where we want to be, but we’re taking steps in the right direction.”
Easy games only matter, of course, if the Nationals win them. After their offense bogged down, Ohlendorf, Tanner Roark and Drew Storen carried a one-run lead to the eighth, which meant they handed the game to Clippard. “Our best pitcher,” Johnson said earlier in the day.
The strict dogma of relief roles worked in the Nationals’ favor because Stanton, the one Marlins hitter who can keep a pitcher up at night, was due up third. Clippard took care of Christian Yelich and Donovan Solano. Stanton hulked to the plate.
Clippard wanted to jump ahead of Stanton. He threw him a first-pitch fastball, which Stanton took for strike one. Most pitchers would use the strike as a means to waste a pitch, to try to make Stanton chase something he could not blast somewhere near Barracks Row. Convention has never been Clippard’s style.
Clippard fired a 93-mph fastball up and out of the zone. Stanton swung hard enough to affect weather patterns and whiffed.
“Traditionally a hitter like that sees a lot of offspeed stuff and the fact that I got ahead of him, I was trying to use his aggressiveness against him and stay hard,” Clippard said.