TORONTO — The Nationals won’t have much time to savor their three-game sweep of the Boston Red Sox, already turning their attention to the Toronto Blue Jays before night had set on Sunday. But before we turn the page entirely there were a few things I didn’t want to go unnoticed from their weekend on Boston.
It was a weekend plenty of Nationals fans could be proud of and that’s good, because there were more Nationals fans at Fenway Park than I’ve seen in any other opposing team’s stadium. The Nationals are well-versed in traveling fanbases, having long seen Nationals Park become a landing spot for them, so it was one of the most bold statements I’ve seen this season of the Nationals fans really rallying behind their first-place team.
Anyway, before the Nationals forget about Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz and begin worrying about Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie, a few thoughts, observations and leftovers…
– As Tyler Clippard got his right shoulder encased in ice Sunday afternoon, he quipped to Nationals trainer Lee Kuntz, “I’m back to my old self.”
The Nationals most durable and oft-used reliever in 2010 and 2011, Clippard had pitched on back-to-back days only twice this season before he worked in five of the Nationals’ last six games. But that’s what happens when you’re 8-for-8 in save opportunities.
Chances are, Clippard will get the night off in tonight’s series opener.
“(Bullpen coach) Jimmy Lett said we might have to put him in sneakers (Monday),” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson.
When you stop and think about what Clippard has done this season, it’s remarkable. He was his usual reliable self in his old set-up role. And since he’s moved into the closer role, he’s yet to falter. The last time he even allowed more than one baserunner in an appearance was May 16, in the eighth inning, in an easy win against Pittsburg.
It’s easy to see why the right-hander privately fumed as the Nationals went through would-be closer after would-be closer in trying to find a suitable stop gap in Drew Storen’s absence. Brad Lidge got hurt. Henry Rodriguez struggled. Even when it became clear Sean Burnett and Clippard were the two most likely candidates the role wasn’t handed to Clippard outright.
But he’s been exceptional since he stepped into it. Not even Bobby Valentine’s hysterics with two strikes and two outs in the bottom of the ninth threw him off on Sunday.
“It doesn’t take long for us as relievers to get settled in,” Clippard said. “I mean, that’s the life of a bullpen guy. We’re kind of on the edge of our seats and things change on a daily basis. But once those things change, it only takes a couple of days to get settled in to whatever change there may be.
“I think we’re all comfortable with our abilities, and I think that’s the most important thing, just being comfortable with yourself and being able to get outs, whatever situation it is. I think all the guys down there are, and it shows. We’ve done a good job this year, and I think everyone’s settled into their roles, even if it’s not what they’re used to. I feel like it’s just pitching. If you can get the job done, you can get it done. And that’s what we’ve done.”
– Every ding and dent on Nationals catcher Jesus Flores is magnified. Of all the 25 men on that roster, Flores may just be the one they can least afford to lose. With Wilson Ramos out for the season, Flores has flourished in the starting catchers role.
He’s also played in 20 of the Nationals’ last 25 games and there doesn’t appear to be any reason that workload would lighten in the near future. So it was with their breath held that the Nationals’ trainers came out to check on Flores Sunday afternoon after he took a foul tip off his right hand.
Flores crouched behind the plate for several minutes, opening and closing his fist as he was examined. He decided to stay in the game, the initial fear that he’d broken his hand or fingers subsiding. A “scary” moment, as he called it.
But this was probably a familiar feeling for Flores, who has been taking an absolute beating behind the plate the last few games. The places he’s taken foul tips or pitches now include his finger, inner thigh, shoulder and groin area.
“It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, come on,’” Flores said. “Just leave me alone ball.”
Manager Davey Johnson, too, though he was witnessing another injury blow to one of his catchers when he joined trainer Lee Kuntz on the field Sunday.
“Boy he got it bad,” Johnson said. “It was black and blue when I went out there and miraculously he could stay in the game… It was a gutty move on his part to be able to stay in the game.”
So as Flores chuckled about it later, and the beating he’s been taking, he could only shrug about the various bumps and bruises.
“That’s how catchers become tough guys,” he said.
Flores lost two years of his career to injury. And when he returned, Ramos (lost to a torn ACL and meniscus this season) had assumed the role of the Nationals’ starting catcher for the future. Given the opportunity he has now, Flores figures a few bruises won’t be enough to keep him out. He’s missed enough games with injury to last a lifetime.
– Nationals right-hander Brad Lidge’s phone began blowing up Friday night when six Seattle Mariners pitchers tossed a no-hitter over the Los Angeles Dodgers. The feat tied one that Lidge had helped set with five other Astros pitchers in 2003 when they combined to no-hit the New York Yankees.
That game, started by Roy Oswalt, had contributions from Pete Munro, Kirk Saarloos, Lidge, Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner, came in Lidge’s first full season in the major leagues. He pitched two innings for the win that night, facing Jason Giambi, Jorge Posada, Robin Ventura, Hideki Matsui, Todd Zeile and Raul Mondesi.
Even now, nine years later, he remembered every detail — including the fact that some of the position players didn’t even know what had happened, but all the pitchers were certainly aware of what they had going.
They only got five of the six pitchers together for a picture that night, Lidge said. Oswalt had been taken for an MRI, leaving the game after one inning with an injury — much the same as Seattle’s Kevin Millwood did on Friday. The difference, though, was the Mariners used six pitchers, five of them to record nine outs. Oswalt left the Astros no-no after just one inning, leaving the bullpen to handle the rest.
– The Nationals will not face a left-handed starter this series in Toronto, which is unfortunate for Danny Espinosa who is hitting so well from the right side of the plate that he was 4-for-8 with four doubles against left-handed starters this weekend in Boston.
Espinosa’s two-out double that grazed the wall in left field at Fenway Park on Sunday afternoon gave the Nationals a one-run lead in the seventh inning, driving in two runs. How unlikely was that outcome given the way Espinosa’s start to the season went? He was hitting .167 with two outs and runners in scoring position.
“Yeah,” Espinosa said. “I’m pretty happy about that wall.”