The Washington Times - August 6, 2011, 02:22AM

DENVER — A funny thing happened en route to Jordan Zimmermann’s seventh win of the season: It was nearly blown.

Zimmermann, who has nine losses this season despite 15 quality starts on the year (including a stretch of 11 straight), was pulled with two outs in the sixth inning Friday night with two on and a 4-0 Nationals lead. The ball was handed to Henry Rodriguez. Four batters later, it was a 4-3 game and the one elusive out Rodriguez was called on for still hadn’t been notched. 

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So in came Tyler Clippard, the Nationals All-Star set-up man… in the sixth inning. 

“I’m trying to get the ball to Drew (Storen),” Clippard said, noting that while the inning may be different than his traditional eighth, his goal is not. “That’s my mindset coming into that situation. It might not always work out that way, but that was my mindset. It was more or less one out at a time. When you’re in tight games like that, you don’t really look too far ahead like ‘Oh, I’m going to get us to the ninth. It’s just one out at a time and trying to stay focused from pitch to pitch.”

Clippard had plenty of time to do that, throwing 27 of them in a two-inning outing that stretched from the sixth to the eighth. Perhaps none of those 27 pitches were more crucial, however, than the three that he threw to Eric Young with the bases loaded in the sixth after falling behind 3-0.

“I’ve said all year he’s a tough act to follow,” Storen said. “Quality pitch, 3-2 changeup with the bases loaded and that’s pretty good stuff, tough to follow up.”

But Clippard was forced to do just that, sitting down twice between innings and even getting an at-bat, his second of the season. 

“Up and down’s not a big deal to me,” Clippard said. “I like pitching multiple innings or whatever the case may be. Getting that at-bat in the seventh there was a little different in the sense that I was squeezing the heck out of the bat, kind of fatigued my forearms a little bit so the grip on the ball was a little different.”

It wasn’t so different to affect the results. Clippard allowed three hits but struck out two and wriggled out of runners-on situations twice. Once his pitch count had escalated and there were two outs in the eighth with a man on, Nationals manager Davey Johnson decided he’d stretched his ace reliever far enough. It was time for Storen for the four-out save.

“When (Clippard) goes in the game, I’m already ready to go,” Storen said. “I’m already in the game once he comes in the game.”

For Storen, who routinely pitches the ninth and rarely comes in with runners on, it was a bit of a different situation. He arrived with a runner on first and knew, from the start, that he’d be needed to extend himself a little longer.

“I just try to turn it into two outings, really,” he said. “The big thing for me is you get in the dugout and you kind of clear your mind. You hit the reset button and say, ‘Here you go, got another three outs.’ Just act like you’re coming in from the bullpen.”

Storen has pitched more than an inning on eight different occasions this year. He’s inherited 10 runners and allowed only two to score but most of his work in multiple innings came earlier this season before he’d truly established himself as the team’s closer. In those outings, he has allowed a run only once.

Johnson has said on several occasions he doesn’t like the way he has to stretch Clippard and Storen often times, but the fact of the matter is, on any given night, they are the two most reliable arms in that bullpen. When faced with the task of wanting to seal a win — and now blow another one for Zimmermann — Johnson really had no other choice once Rodriguez was ineffective.

“Clippard came through again,” Zimmermann said. “And Storen closed the door. It was a good win.”