Clippard has had three straight shaky outings. He would have suffered consecutive blown saves if Bernadina had not swiftly covered a chunk of the outfield at Minute Maid Park and ended Tuesday’s 12-inning victory over the Houston Astros with a wall-colliding catch for the ages.
Throughout Johnson’s successful managerial career, he has been among the best in his business at assembling strong bullpens. He has a master’s eye for identifying and correcting issues before they become full-blown problems, and Johnson is not worried about Clippard (“I love the guy,” he says).
There have been few lights-out relievers in baseball history. For every Mariano Rivera and Dennis Eckersley, there are 10 hold-your-breath closers. Mitch Williams was aptly nicknamed “Wild Thing” (Williams walked 544 batters in only 691.1 innings). Still, Williams recorded 192 saves and was a an all-star during an 11-year career with six teams.
Clippard hasn’t been anywhere close to Williams wild. He has hit a rough patch with his command, which Johnson realizes. Johnson has the luxury of turning back to Drew Storen, who had 43 saves last season, if Clippard fails to rediscover his groove.
Johnson stuck with Henry Rodriguez longer than most Nationals fans would have preferred. That’s just Davey. He’s a players’ manager. He errs on hanging with them too long rather than not long enough.
That’s why I believe Clippard will keep the job unless, over a much larger sample size than three appearances, he proves he no longer deserves it because of ineffectiveness or injury. As often as the Nationals have been without some of their best players this season, Johnson has had many contingency plans in place.
When Bernadina hit the wall in Houston, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How long will he be out?” Bernadina was fine. But I had a natural reaction during a season in which the Nationals have thrived while somehow overcoming injuries to so many key players.
That’s where the bench comes in. The great thing for the Nationals is that their reserves have been spectacularly effective. Bernadina is having the best season of his life. He has finally made the most of an opportunity to play. Steve Lombardozzi has been a lineup sparkplug. Each time the Nationals have seemed to have a hole, multiple players filled it quickly.
That must continue. When the Nationals shut down staff ace Stephen Strasburg (it’s coming soon), John Lannan will rejoin the rotation on a full-time basis after spending most of the season with Class AAA Syracuse. He’s already 2-0 with a 3.46 earned-run average in solid spot-duty work.
Getting top-notch production from backups is “one of the things that has really brought the guys together,” Rizzo said. “Right now, there’s such real meaning in every game that you play, and everyone in our clubhouse knows they can count on each other because we keep going out and proving it.
“We know we have a lot of time left. Everyone understands we have to keep working. But one of the good things about baseball is that, over 162 games, the best teams are usually left at the end. That’s all I say.”
For Nationals, the closing stretch of the season is shaping up to be a glorious time for them. Even if they don’t want to talk about it.
For Jason Reid’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/reid.