PHILADELPHIA — Hours before the game, Tyler Clippard spoke strongly and firmly about the newly re-opened closers’ job in the Nationals’ bullpen. He wanted it, had been fighting for it for three years and felt like he’d been passed over for it before.
He then took that line of thinking to pitching coach Steve McCatty, pleading his case once more.
“Before the ballgame he said something to Cat about: ‘Give me a shot.’ And Cat said: ‘You’re fine, right where you’re at, just relax,’” manager Davey Johnson recalled.
The Nationals, of course, have been reluctant to move Clippard from his eighth-inning, set-up role. He was an All-Star in that role in 2011, the team’s only one, and arguably did the job better than anyone else in the league. Even with their closer hurt, their back-up closer hurt and their third-string closer struggling, the Nationals still like Clippard where he was, finding him too valuable there to be moved.
But in the ninth inning Tuesday night, Tom Gorzelanny allowing a solo home run in the eighth to turn a 5-1 game into a 5-2 game and, thus, a save situation, Clippard was the one warming in the Nationals’ bullpen.
“It set up just perfect for him,” Johnson said.
So Clippard ran in for the ninth inning, trying to secure his first save since 2010.
“A lot more adrenaline, a lot more nervousness,” said Clippard, who’s pitched in more high-leverage situations than anyone on the team since 2010 — usually with runners in scoring position in a tight game when the biggest out will be the one he gets.
Most of those arguably carried more weight than securing a three-run victory, but Clippard still felt different.
“It’s kind of one of those things where I’ve been fighting for that opportunity,” Clippard said. “So it was like, ‘This is it.’
“Not saying those (other) spots aren’t nerve-wracking, and there isn’t adrenaline pumping, because there are and that happens, but there was definitely tonight as well.”
Clippard’s first pitch was smoked down the right field line, high, deep and foul off the bat of Pete Orr. Clippard, who reminded himself that it was a three-run lead, regrouped. He struck out Orr and got Juan Pierre and Placido Polanco to ground out. He shared a high-five with catcher Jesus Flores and, instead of the weak high fives he’s used to when he pitches the eighth and waits out the game in the clubhouse, he got to congratulate each of his teammates on the field.
“It’s a lot more fun on the field,” he said. “Getting that final out and hearing crickets out there, it’s a good feeling. Especially here in Philly.”
In his locker in the visitors’ clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park Tuesday night sat the ball. Inscribed on it “Save No. 1.” This was Clippard’s second career save but the inscription, done by clubhouse manager Mike Wallace, was to indicate it was his first save of the year.
Perhaps there’ll be more to come.