The Washington Times - April 25, 2012, 03:36AM

SAN DIEGO — Tyler Clippard made his way through the visitors’ clubhouse at Petco Park Tuesday night, his right shoulder still red from the bag of ice that he’d just removed. Less than an hour earlier, Clippard had gotten the Nationals out of their biggest jam of the evening, using 26 pitches on four batters — including 12 (nine fouled off) to Mark Kotsay alone — to sneak out of the seventh inning. 

Four days ago, Clippard needed 14 pitches in an at-bat with Miami’s Emilio Bonifacio. And in Clippard’s eight appearances this season, he’s required 21 or more pitches to get through his work for the day five different times. Clippard made 72 appearances in 2011 in only 29 of those did he use 21 pitches or more.

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They’re certainly making him earn his keep this year.

“Yeah, man,” Clippard said, rolling his eyes slightly after the third marathon at-bat of 11 pitches or more he’s had this year.

So what’s leading to the rise in number of pitches early this season? Probably a combination of things.

First of all, the book on Clippard is out. He’s no longer the best kept secret in the National League. An All-Star set-up man last year, there’s little question he’s the Nationals’ best reliever and teams are aware of what he throws. Second, Clippard generally doesn’t like to employ his breaking pitches very much early in the year, mixing them in more as the season goes along, but he might have to start.

“I think people are more aware of what I’m trying to do,” Clippard said. “It’s just a matter of sticking to my strengths. I think guys are aware of (what they are) but, at the end of the day, it’s kind of what makes me who I am. I’ve got to kind of stick with that.”

Clippard ultimately won his battle with Kotsay, getting the veteran to pop out to shortstop, and he refocused quickly to induce a ground out to shortstop from Chris Denorfia, the next batter, to end the inning. When Bonifacio took him to 14 and ultimately walked, Clippard then struck out Hanley Ramirez to end the inning.

The foul balls are likely getting old for Clippard, who ends up almost begging the hitters to put the ball in play (in his mind, anyway) and not pushing for a strikeout when the fouls continue to pile up.

“Those are big spots for the team,” Clippard said. “And as frustrating as it can be to continue to execute and them continue to fight off those pitches, you usually only get one inning out there. You’re just grinding pitch to pitch.

“It’s really easy, in those spots, to forget about the last guy and go get the next guy because it’s so important for the team and to get the ‘W’ and it’s what you’ve got to do.”

Clippard prepares himself in general to be ready to go in the middle of the seventh or the eighth inning. The goal, of course, not to be “ambushed” when your name is called to get warm. Tuesday night, Clippard was aware that the game dictated the sixth inning would likely be the last one for Gio Gonzalez. He didn’t anticipate Craig Stammen, who’s been exceptional, needing him to bail him out. But after a walk and a single, that’s what happened.

“I was ready,” Clippard said. “I really didn’t think (Stammen) was going to have any problems, but I was ready.”