Tyler Clippard’s performance Thursday night mattered barely at all to the outcome of the game and very much to the Nationals’ chances in the coming month. Clippard trotted to the mound with the Nationals leading by four runs to start the bottom of the eighth inning, and so even if he continued his recent slide, the Nationals still probably would have won.
But if Clippard didn’t stop his slide soon – his ERA was 9.58 in September prior to last night – it would have jeopardized the Nationals’ odds of survival once they reach October. Manager Davey Johnson has replaced him in the closer’s spot with Drew Storen, but Clippard remains the Nationals’ top setup man and one of their most valuable relievers. They need him right, and for one night, he was again.
Clippard struck out two batters in a 1-2-3 inning, his first completely clean sheet since Sept. 10 and the first time in four outings he hadn’t allowed a run. It was a no-pressure situation, but Clippard executed like his old self. He located his fastball low in the strike zone, the crucial aspect of his success he had recently been searching for. If he can keep doing that for the final six games of the season, he can forget about his downturn at the right time.
“That’s kind of the goal,” Clippard said. “I’m not too worried at this point in the season about my numbers or anything like that. I just want to get going for the playoffs, get right for that. Time it up right so I can go on a good stretch here for the last month or so of the season, for the playoffs.”
Many scouts worried Clippard had been overworked, and it seemed like a legitimate concern. He has made 33 appearances since the all-star break, tied for 14th most in the National League. He had closed for the first time in his career, which meant more situations where he warmed up in the bullpen but never entered the game. He no longer pitched over multiple innings, which helped, but the Nationals asked him to use a lot of bullets.
Clippard, though, never saw it that way. He has said for years that he becomes more effective with more regular use. Even if he had pitched Wednesday night and five times in the previous week, Clippard wanted to pitch again Thursday, four-run game or a nail-biter.
“I was itching to get back out there,” Clippard said. “The last few days I’ve been working on some things, and I knew I was close. I wanted to get back out there, and I’m glad I got in there tonight.”
He struck out Laynce Nix and Darin Ruf, both looking at fastballs. He got ahead of Ruf using two cutters, a shift from usual fastball-change-up attack. He finished his inning with a Domonic Brown popup to the infield.
The changes stemmed from Clippard’s discussions with pitching coach Steve McCatty. On Monday morning, Clippard and McCatty shared a long chat in the Nationals clubhouse, with Clippard performing his delivery in slow motion as McCatty watched, trying to pinpoint what Clippard needed to keep his fastball from elevating.
“I just got out of whack a little while there,” Clippard said. “It’s not that I didn’t really feel like myself, I think it just came down to not executing. I was talking to Cat. I can look back on those [bad] outings and they kind of come back to just one or two pitches, and most of the time they were fastballs right down the middle, and you’re not going to have success, especially in fastball counts. So it’s kind of just getting that confidence back, and I think tonight helped me do that.”
FROM THE POST
Michael Morse blasted two homers in the Nationals’ 7-3 victory over the Phillies, a very promising sign that also helped drop their magic number to three.
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FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
THE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Nats’ magic number to clinch the division: 3
Nats’ magic number to clinch the top seed: 5*
*The Nationals lead the Reds by one game, but since the Nationals beat the Reds in the season series (5-2), they’d hold the top seed in the event of a tie.
Current NL matchups
Nationals vs. Braves/Cardinals*
Reds vs. Giants
*The Braves have clinched a wild-card berth. The Cardinals lead the race for the second wild card by 3 ½ games over the Dodgers and four games over the Brewers. The Nationals open a three-game set in St. Louis tonight.