The Washington Times - March 16, 2011, 05:36PM

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Tyler Clippard got up in the bullpen in the seventh inning on Wednesday and began warming to come into what was then a 6-3 Nationals lead over the Houston Astros.

He didn’t enter the game until there were two outs in the eighth, though — the Nationals opting to go with Doug Slaten for 1.2 innings instead — and by then, the Clippard who is usually calm, collected and in control on the mound was nowhere to be found.


After a quick out to end the eighth, Clippard faced eight batters in a ninth inning that read walk, walk, RBI-double, wild pitch and RBI-double before he registered a single out. It didn’t get any better after that, giving up a two-run triple to Brian Bogusevic to tie the game and allowing the game-winning single two batters later to Anderson Hernandez. The Nationals, who were leading 7-3 at the start of the ninth, lost 8-7.

“It just kind of snowballed on me,” Clippard said. “I wasn’t able to make the pitches when I needed to and that’s kind of my own fault. You try not to lose focus and I feel like I did a little bit today, which is probably the most frustrating thing about my outing.

“It’s just kind of a wakeup call. Maybe (I’m) taking things for granted around here and that’s not something I can do right now. It’s probably going to help me, this outing today, for sure.”

Clippard’s performance, which raised his spring ERA to 14.40 and was the second outing in his last three appearances where he allowed three earned runs or more. Wednesday, all five ninth-inning runs were earned.

“Clip just got the ball up,” said Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty. “He was rushing, that’s all.”

It was the cap on an up-and-down game for the Nationals that started out poor, turned in their favor on the heels of strong relief pitching and home runs by Nyjer Morgan and Wilson Ramos but then fell apart in the ninth.

“It was like three different games,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “We didn’t pitch good early, we didn’t play good early. Then we played real good and pitched good and then we didn’t pitch good or play good late.”

Ross Detwiler, who had been making a statement this spring with his performance and was forcing himself into consideration for the fifth rotation spot, didn’t locate the ball well and allowed the first four batters of the second inning to reach, resulting in a three-run rally for the Astros and an inflated pitch count for the right-hander. He wasn’t able to go more than three innings.

“It was bad,” Detwiler said. “I was never ahead in the count and it’s easy to hit a fastball in a fastball count… I wasn’t attacking hard enough,” he added. “I was kind of staying back and just throwing the ball out there instead of getting out and attacking.”

“It wasn’t a good day for (Detwiler) but it wasn’t terrible,” Riggleman said.

The news wasn’t all bad for the Nationals, though as Morgan hit his first home run, regular or exhibition, since July 28, 2009 — a three-run shot that, at the time, gave the Nationals a 5-3 lead. They padded that later in the inning on doubles by Alex Cora and Matt Stairs and then again in the eighth when Ramos hit his first homer of the spring.

Sean Burnett, who took a hard foul ball of his left knee while sitting in the bullpen in the first inning, kept his spring ERA spotless with another inning of hitless relief. He was icing the knee later in the day and said he had an instant bruise but it was not going to be an issue going forward.

Cole Kimball then followed Burnett with two scoreless innings and composed himself well after issuing a walk in each inning, and Slaten then added 1.2 innings of hitless relief.

“We had three pitchers there in the middle who did a good job for us,” Riggleman said. “And (Clippard), who’s always very dependable, just didn’t have it today.”