VIERA, Fla. — On his first day as Washington Nationals manager, Davey Johnson would not let Tyler Clippard pitch. Clippard had mentioned a tired arm, and Johnson needed to hear no more. Even with closer Drew Storen unavailable and an extra-innings game unfolding, Johnson would let Clippard nowhere near the mound.
It was a new feeling for Clippard. Over the past two seasons, Clippard has thrown more innings (1791 / 3) and chucked more pitches (2,930) than any major league reliever. Only seven pitchers have appeared in more games. His durability and dominance made him an all-star last year. But, at times, he wondered about the toll it may take.
“I don’t think it’s something I can continue to do over the course of a 10-year career, which is something I have a goal in mind to have,” Clippard said. “I want to be here for a while. So I understand that the workload needs to go down.”
Under Johnson, and with an already strong bullpen that has improved, it will. Clippard will remain a vital cog at the back of the Nationals’ bullpen, but his usage — the nightly appearances, the six-out slogs — will decrease. While former manager Jim Riggleman rigidly used Clippard and Storen when ahead late in the game, Johnson plans to ease their burden.
“I want them all fresh,” Johnson said. “I don’t care, at anytime during the season, I never want to overwork anybody.”
In the bullpen last year, relievers felt that Riggleman treated every game as a must-win struggle, perhaps because he felt pressure to keep his job while managing without a contract beyond the season. Once Johnson took over, they saw a change.
“Davey has done a good job of seeing the big picture of things,” Storen said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with either approach, but for Riggs, it was like all hands on deck, every game. That kind of wears out the ’pen after a while.”
No one may feel a bigger difference than Clippard. Under Riggleman last season, Clippard pitched on consecutive days six times and recorded at least four outs in 15 of 34 appearances. Johnson still leaned on Clippard, but he lessened the “highly stressful” innings. Clippard pitched consecutive days four times under Johnson, and in 12 of 38 appearances he pitched more than one inning.
“To have a manager who’s on your side more so than just worrying about his job and winning games on a daily basis, who’s protecting his players, is awesome,” Clippard said. “I think it goes hand in hand: If you have healthy players, you’ll win. It’s a good mind-set to have. It’s going to help the team.”
In fairness to Riggleman, Henry Rodriguez had not emerged as a reliable option before Riggleman resigned in late June, leaving him with fewer late-inning choices. He also didn’t have a weapon like Johnson will have this season in Brad Lidge.
In Lidge, who signed as a free agent after four years with the Phillies, the Nationals have a veteran who they trust in any role. If they are trailing, they can use him to keep the game close. If Storen needs a night off, Lidge could close. If Clippard has pitched two games in three days, Lidge could set up.
“That’s why I think Lidge was such a big pickup,” Storen said. “He’s really going to help.”
Clippard has treated the Nationals to some of the most overwhelming relief performances in baseball. With his herky-jerky windup, rising fastball and trap-door change-up, he can take over an inning like few relievers. And, with his background as a starter, he can go back to the mound and do it again the next inning.
Johnson, though, will make it a priority to preserve his relievers. At the end of the last year, Storen would tell Johnson he felt fine to pitch. “And he was like, ‘No,’ ” Storen said.
And so, Johnson said, Clippard will have a more defined role. He will not enter games before the seventh inning to “put out a fire,” Johnson said. With Rodriguez having harnessed his 100-mph fastball, Clippard will most often pitch the eighth inning after Rodriguez handles the seventh.
Someday, Clippard wants to be the pitcher who handles the ninth.
“I want to be a closer,” Clippard said. “I think everyone as a reliever in baseball, if you’re not striving to be the best at your craft, you’re not progressing as a player. In most cases, the best relievers are closers. So, yeah, I want to be a closer.”
Clippard knows he has to save some of the bullets in his right arm for that to happen. He always knows he has a manager who will let him.
Nationals notes: Washington shipped nine players to minor league camp in its first round of cuts Monday, including infielder Anthony Rendon and left-handed starter Matt Purke, two 2011 draft picks who signed major league contracts, who were optioned to Class A Potomac.
The Nationals also optioned infielder Carlos Rivero to Class AAA Syracuse and reassigned relievers Austin Bibens-Dirkx and Rafael Martin, outfielders Xavier Paul and Corey Brown, catcher Sandy Leon and infielder Jarrett Hoffpauir. The moves left the Nationals with 45 players in their major league camp.
Johnson singled out two players who impressed most: Rendon, the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft, and Brown, a 26-year-old who disappointed last year after coming in the trade that sent Josh Willingham to Oakland.