Nationals closer Tyler Clippard is a man in search of something. What that is he just can’t say right now. For the second time in three days Clippard gave up the deciding runs in a loss – this time three in the ninth inning of what was a 2-1 Nats lead over the Milwaukee Brewers. By the time he departed – thanks in part to some great execution by the Brewers, some bad luck and a distinct lack of focus – Clippard had allowed three runs to score en route to a 4-2 defeat.
For a player who took over the closer role in May with last year’s closer Drew Storen still recovering from right elbow surgery, it has been a humbling experience. Clippard has been one of the sport’s best set-up men since he joined Washington early in the 2009 season. And he had handled his first chance to close well for much of 2012, filling in when it became clear fireballer Henry Rodriguez was not up to the challenge.
“It’s never easy to deal with failure. That’s human nature,” Clippard said. “If you’re giving up the lead in a game, it hurts, whether it’s the seventh, eighth or ninth. Obviously, we’re in a pennant race and tonight would’ve been a big win for us, and that makes it hurt even worse. But that’s how it’s supposed to feel. It shouldn’t be any surprise there.”
After a scoreless inning and a save – his 29th of the season – against the St. Louis Cardinals lowered his ERA to 2.69 on Sept. 2, Clippard has been a different pitcher. In his last 7 1/3 innings spread over eight appearances, Clippard has allowed nine earned runs on 15 hits. That ERA is now 3.59. He has eight strikeouts during that stretch and just one walk. But it’s clear that Clippard has become more hittable recently. Why?
“It’s just leaving the ball up, making mistakes in bad counts. That’s how it goes,” Clippard said. “I’ve been through struggles in my career before, and that’s pretty much the common theme. I’m a guy who needs to locate my fastball well, and I haven’t been doing that. So therefore I’ve been getting hit a little bit.”
Simple to diagnose, maybe, but not always easy to fix. Clippard was once a promising starter in the New York Yankees’ farm system so he knows something about reinventing himself. On Friday he learned that manager Davey Johnson will employ a co-closer role with Clippard and good friend Storen, who saved 43 games for Washington last season. It’s pretty apparent that Storen will get the next opportunity. But Johnson isn’t giving up on Clippard, either.
“Just one time out. That was a tough club in a one-run ballgame with all that speed,” Johnson said.
Indeed, there was an element of luck involved here. Brewers speedster Norichika Aoki dropped a perfect bunt that not even a defensive wiz like Ryan Zimmerman at third base could handle. That set the tone for the inning. Clippard and catcher Jesus Flores had to worry about the steal and instead Flores had an inside pitch tick off his glove for a passed ball.
Aoki took third on a long fly ball by Rickie Weeks. And Clippard then lost a battle to Ryan Braun, the reigning N.L. most valuable player. Clippard left one of his patented change-ups over the inside-middle of the plate and a star like that usually won’t miss. He ripped a single to left to tie the game.
Clippard then committed a cardinal mistake. He lost his focus. Braun immediately stole second to put the go-ahead run in scoring position. A fastball over the middle was again ripped into left by Aramis Ramirez for a double and just like that an apparent win had slipped away. To add insult to injury, Clippard threw a wild pitch to send Ramirez to third and shortstop Ian Desmond couldn’t make an accurate throw to first base after ranging far towards the middle of the diamond to field a bounding ball. Ramirez came home with an insurance run on the infield hit by Jonathan Lucroy. That left the Nats with a loss and Clippard trying to remember how he’s escaped ruts like this before in his career.
“It’s been different. There’s little things, whether it be mentally, mechanically, whatever. It varies,” Clippard said. “That’s the beauty of this game. You’re constantly learning about yourself, and that’s something that’s going on with me right now. I’m trying to figure it out. I’m searching right now. We’ll get it figured out. I’m not too worried about it. I’m still confident as heck. It hurt tonight, I’m not going to lie to you. It’s not easy. But we’re in a good spot.”
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