The first pitch Tyler Clippard threw Emilio Bonifacio in the eighth inning with two outs Friday night was a ball. An 86-mph cut fastball. It was just below the strike zone.
Bonifacio held off, he went to 1-0 but swung through Clippard’s next two offerings, an 81-mph changeup in the dirt and an elevated 93-mph fastball.
So there they were at 1-2.
On second base stood Logan Morrison, by virtue of an infield single and a grounder to first that moved him over. Clippard and the Nationals were clinging to a 1-0 lead with the Nationals’ All-Star set-up man trying to help nail down a gem from left-hander Ross Detwiler, taking the ball after a crisp 1-2-3 seventh inning pitched by Craig Stammen.
There was most likely not a single person in either dugout, on the field or of the 24,640 who could’ve predicted that, after the first three pitches in the at-bat, Clippard would throw 11 more before it was over.
“Real pesky guy,” Clippard said. “I couldn’t seem to put him away.”
The fourth pitch was a 93-mph fastball. Foul.
So Clippard went to the changeup, down just below the zone. Foul.
Clippard’s changeup is regarded as one of the best in the league. He comes at hitters with a 93-94 mph fastball and then pulls a string on his changeup to flutter it in at 82-83 with good deception in his herky-jerky delivery. So he went to it again.
Back to the fastball. Ball.
Now they were seven pitches in and instead of having Bonifacio at 1-2, Clippard had to deal with him at 3-2.
“You kind of have to reset after each pitch,” Clippard said.
Clippard wound up resetting an awful lot. Bonifacio then fouled off the next six straight pitches. Changeup, fastball, fastball, fastball, fastball, fastball. Foul, foul, foul, foul, foul, foul.
“That was a tremendous battle,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “Got to hand it to Bonifacio… He hit some good changeups, hit some good fastballs.”
“Once a hitter’s up there seeing you over and over, their timing’s a little better on each pitch,” Clippard said, acknowledging the hitter gains some advantage when they last so long in an at-bat, especially against a reliever.
“I think that was a big factor in why he kept fouling stuff off. I felt like I put together a good at-bat, made the pitches that I wanted to make. One changeup I threw him was just out of the zone and he didn’t bite.”
That changeup was pitch No. 14. An 83-mph offering in the dirt. Bonifacio made his way to first base with a walk.
“By the time I walked him,” Clippard said, “I was just happy it was all over.”
That was the good news, then, because the walk brought Hanley Ramirez to the plate with two on and two out in a 1-0 game for the Nationals.
“The last person I wanted to see come up with two guys on was Ramirez,” Johnson said later.
“I really wanted to get Bonifacio there,” Clippard added. “Obviously Hanley’s been hot and probably their best hitter at this time. But it didn’t workout that way and I had to regroup and make some pitches.”
Clippard quickly fell behind to Ramirez 2-0. He took a deep breath. Ramirez fouled off his next offering, a changeup, and Clippard returned to his bread and butter: the high fastball. The first was close to the heart of the plate, 94 mph. Ramirez missed. The second was more safely up in the zone but it didn’t matter anyway. Ramirez missed that one, too.
Inning over, with emphatic fist pumps from Clippard and catcher Jesus Flores. One frame later, so was the game.
“It’s a great feeling,” Clippard said. “I was fired up. I was working my butt off tonight, trying to get out of that inning and making the pitches I wanted to make. I fell behind (Ramirez) 2-0, and to get that strikeout, I was pretty fired up.”
Clippard couldn’t remember ever having a longer at-bat, at least not since he became a reliever three years ago. Reed Johnson battled him for 12 pitches earlier this season, but that one ended with a strikeout for the right-hander. This one didn’t fall his way.
“I executed on every pitch except for that last changeup,” Clippard said later, one teammate nearby joking that it had to be the best at-bat of Bonifacio’s life.
“It was a good at-bat on his part,” Clippard said with a shrug.
If the one after it Friday night goes another way, there’s a very good chance the Nationals are waking up Saturday morning 10-5, not 11-4.