Back in May, sitting at his locker at Nationals Park, Tyler Clippard considered his prospects for making the all-star team and quickly dismissed them. He had become one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball, but he fit into a category — the set-up man-- that recognition evades. “As a reliever, it’s kind of the save that you get a lot of attention for,” Clippard said then. “It’s not really in the cards, I don’t think.”
Sunday morning, Clippard huddled with the rest of his teammates for a pregame meeting in the Washington Nationals clubhouse. As General Manager Mike Rizzo announced which of them had made the All-Star Game, Clippard was stunned: It was him.
“Pretty shocking,” Clippard said. “Pretty awesome.”
Clippard, 26, reached the best moment of a winding career when he became the Nationals’ only representative on the National League all-star team, chosen by San Francisco Giants Manager Bruce Bochy. Clippard might be joined by first baseman Michael Morse, who is one five choices in the final player vote, chosen in an online balloting by fans.
Clippard knew he was having a good season. As the Nationals’ top set-up reliever and former manager Jim Riggleman’s first choice in a late-inning jam, he has a 1.96 ERA with 57 strikeouts in 46 innings, the second-most strikeouts and innings among NL relievers. The league has hit .162 against him. He has inherited 31 runners and allowed only six to score.
Still, Clippard assumed the league would overlook his candidacy. Among the 26 major league pitchers on the all-star rosters, 23 are starters or closers. The other two set-up relievers were Atlanta Braves reliever Jonny Venters and Kansas City Royals right-hander Aaron Crow, whom the Nationals chose with the ninth pick in the 2008 draft but could not sign before the deadline.
“There’s too many guys, especially in the National League — starters, great closers,” Clippard said. “I’m pitching well, but usually those are the guys that get the nod as far as the all-star is concerned. I knew there was maybe an outside shot, but I didn’t really take it seriously. That’s probably a good thing, not really thinking about it too much. Now that it’s here and it’s actually happening, it’s pretty awesome.”
Clippard becomes the second Nationals reliever in as many years to earn a spot in the game , following Matt Capps last season. Clippard began his career as a starter with the New York Yankees and came to the Nationals in December 2007 in a trade for right-handed reliever Jonathan Albaladejo (currently pitching in Japan). The Nationals made Clippard a reliever before the 2009 season, a change he resisted at first. Since then, Clippard has become a late-inning, strikeout machine — opposing hitters have missed on 33.5 percent of their swings against Clippard since 2010, the third-best rate in the majors.
“It’s tough to put into words because of the process it’s taken to get to this point in my career,” Clippard said. “The hard work, all the people around me that helped me out. It’s still early on in my career, and I have a lot more goals that I want to accomplish. But this is a cool little one to have.”
Morse will have a chance to make to the team, an unlikely prospect at the start of May, when he had lost his starting left field position to Laynce Nix. Since May 22, the day he took over the Nationals’ full-time first baseman in the wake of Adam LaRoche’s shoulder injury, Morse has the most home runs (13) and the seventh-highest slugging percentage (.656) in the National League.
When asked whom he would choose to represent the Nationals, Clippard answered without hesitation. “Mikey Morse,” he said. “I mean, he’s been our best player all year long. I think since May, he’s probably been the best hitter in the big leagues. What he has proven to himself and proven to the league about what kind of player he is this year, and at the end of last year too, has been phenomenal.”
Morse is up against Arizona Diamondbacks starting pitching Ian Kennedy, Philadelphia Philles center fielder Shane Victorino, Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier and Rockies first baseman Todd Helton.
“It’s been a long road, but I’m very happy and very fortunate to have this moment to be a finalist with four other guys,” Morse said. “Vote often, vote a lot. I’m excited. I want to get there.”
If Morse does not make the team, it will stretch the Nationals’ streak of seasons with one all-star to six. Rookie second baseman Danny Espinosa, who will have to watch Rickie Weeks and Brandon Phillips play second base for the National League, also had a case to go to Arizona for the July 12 game.
While playing standout defense, Espinosa is tied with Weeks for the NL home run lead among second basemen with 15. He is second to Weeks in the same group in slugging percentage (.465) and on-base plus slugging percentage (.793).