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.
After Stanton’s vicious swing, he seemed to have timed Clippard’s fastball. Clippard didn’t care.
“The second pitch I threw was a fastball a little bit above the strike zone, but when it came out of my hand, it probably looked like a good pitch to hit,” Clippard said. “. . . You can think of it the other way, too, but you just have to make sure you’re going to bury that offspeed pitch. I feel more comfortable with a high fastball. That’s just how I pitch.”
Clippard rifled another fastball at Stanton’s chin. He whiffed again. Three pitches. Three strikes. One of the game’s most menacing hitters slumped back to the bench. Clippard pumped his fist.
“He’s been doing it all year,” Johnson said. “He’s been doing it ever since I’ve been here.”
Clippard had added to his incredible season. In 591
3 innings, Clippard has struck out 61 batters and allowed 28 hits. Despite his dominance Tuesday, Johnson never considered sending him back for the ninth. He handed off to Soriano, who rebounded from recent struggles. He relied more on his slider and worked around a two-out single. In the handshake line, Bryce Harper untucked his shirt.
Ohlendorf cruised through five innings, working through only one arduous frame. The Nationals’ staff held up.
In the fourth, Stanton smashed a double into the left field corner to put runners on second and third with one out. Ohlendorf intentionally walked Logan Morrison in order to face Ed Lucas. In a rare meeting of Ivy Leaguers, Ohlendorf (Princeton) struck out Lucas (Dartmouth) trying to check his swing.
“The biggest at-bat of the night for me,” Ohlendorf said.
Justin Ruggiano grounded out to third, and Ohlendorf was out of the inning. In the fifth, Ohlendorf plowed through a 1-2-3 inning, striking out a batter and throwing one fastball 94 mph. Ohlendorf had thrown only 78 pitches. Nothing appeared amiss. Johnson, though, noticed a change.
The phone rang in the Nationals’ bullpen. Coach Jimmy Lett answered and pointed at Roark. Roark warmed throughout the bottom of the fifth. In the dugout, Ohlendorf sweated through his jersey and breathed heavy.
Ohlendorf started the sixth. He threw Yelich four pitches. All fastballs, none zipped faster than 85 mph. Yelich crushed Ohlendorf’s final offering over the right field fence.
Ohlendorf insisted he was not tired, that he had only missed his location with a “batting practice fastball.” But Johnson’s concern about Ohlendorf’s stamina, he said, likely will convince him to switch Ohlendorf out of the rotation in favor of Roark.
“I don’t know,” Ohlendorf said. “That’s the first I’ve heard of it. I’ve been enjoying starting. I’ll do whatever they ask.”