BALTIMORE — For the first two months of the season, Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson tried not to move Tyler Clippard out of his eighth-inning role. Too valuable there, Johnson felt, he didn’t want to begin shifting him into a part-time closers role in Drew Storen’s absence.
Clippard has been so good since moving into that role at the end of May, though, that Johnson is now considering leaving him there even when Storen returns healthy around the All-Star break. In converting his 12th of 12 save opportunities Saturday night, Clippard continued a streak in which he has allowed just one hit in the last 14 1/3 innings — all of them spanning his time as the closer.
“Right now, he’s my closer,” Johnson said. “And the way he’s going I can’t see going to somebody else. They’d have to show me up here probably in a set-up role before they have the opportunity to close.”
Storen is continuing his progress from April 11 surgery to remove a bone chip from his right elbow. He’s on track to return around the All-Star break, if not before. But when he does it’s more than likely that his role will be as a set-up man to roommate Clippard, instead of the other way around.
The logic here isn’t all that flawed. The Nationals are a first-place team and they need a closer they have no doubts about. With Storen returning after at least a three-plus-month layoff from facing major league hitters, the Nationals won’t know right away that he’ll be that guy. Easing him in as a set-up man would help ease the transition.
But the fact that Clippard has been so dominant makes it almost the only option.
“I feel really good having the confidence of Davey and my teammates,” Clippard said, reliever Sean Burnett seamlessly assuming his eighth-inning role as Clippard moved to the ninth. “It goes a long way. When you’re out there grinding, you know that he’s got your back. It makes it that much easier.
Clippard said that since he was converted to a reliever before the 2009 season, he can’t remember a groove like the one he’s in now. Over the last 15 games, Clippard has struck out 18 batters and walked five.
“We’re always in tight ballgames,” he said. “I think that has to do with our team, and the importance of those late innings. It really helps me bear down and focus. When you have that, it obviously helps. (And) I’m comfortable with what I’m doing on the mound. Working with consistently with Jesus Flores over the last few months, we have a really good rapport going. We’re on the same page every night. He gives me confidence. It’s just an accumulation of all that.”
Johnson has lamented often this season how jumbled his bullpen has been. When the season began, Tom Gorzelanny and Craig Stammen were his long men. Clippard, Burnett and Brad Lidge were his set-up men. Henry Rodriguez was the primary closer.
Things have no doubt changed but lately the roles haven’t been all that hard, at least in the late innings, for the relievers to slide into. When the Nationals’ starters are pitching as well as they have been, and going into the sixth and seventh innings ever night, it makes it that much easier.
“It lines up a lot better,” Clippard said. “Guys get into routines and we know what to expect. It just makes our lives a lot easier. The bullpen is a hectic atmosphere to begin with. Regardless of if you know when you’re to get in the game. When the phone rings, half the time the guy is already on the mound before (bullpen coach Jim Lett) says anything, because we’re pretty sure we know who it’s going to be. That’s a huge luxury. Not a lot of teams have that.”