ST. LOUIS — For weeks Tyler Clippard has been searching. He couldn’t get through a clean inning, couldn’t lock down the game the way he had been for the majority of the season, couldn’t get his deceptive high fastball high hitters.
He looked at old video, discussed a flaw in his mechanics with pitching coach Steve McCatty that was making his funky delivery unbalanced and kept getting run back out there to try and make things right — even though it started to be in the eighth inning instead of the ninth.
But what Clippard couldn’t find until Thursday night in Philadelphia was a clean, 1-2-3 inning. He got it then, his first since Sept. 10. He needed it bad.
“I just got out of whack there a little while,” Clippard said, his demeanor markedly more relieved and relaxed than it had been for days. “It’s not that I didn’t really feel like myself. I think it just came down to not executing. I was talking to (McCatty) and I can look back on those outings and they kind of come back to just one or two pitches — and most of the time they were fastballs right down the middle. You’re not going to have success (with that), especially in fastball counts.
“It’s kind of just getting that confidence back, and I think tonight helped me do that.”
It’s amazing what one good outing can do. Sure, Clippard wasn’t pitching in the highest leverage situation Thursday night, the Nationals holding a four-run lead in the eighth, and he wasn’t facing the heart of the Phillies still-dangerous lineup.
But he struck out old friend Laynce Nix on four pitches, he battled for nine pitches with Darin Ruf before the rookie also struck out, and he got Domonic Brown to pop out to shortstop. Both of the strikeouts came on fastballs. That, to Clippard, was the biggest difference.
“You look at the outing (Wednesday) night, I didn’t (locate my fastball) a single time,” Clippard said. “I got out of it. It was a successful outing in the sense that we kept the lead in the eighth there, but most of my fastballs were up in the zone. Tonight I was able to locate down and then mix in some changeups and just kind of do what I’ve always done.”
Regardless of the inning that he’s pitching in, and for now it seems it will remain the eighth with Drew Storen pitching the ninth, it’s imperative for the Nationals’ playoff success that they have Clippard operating at his best. He’s one of the filthiest relievers in the league when he’s on and that’s the type of pitcher who can make or break a tight playoff game in the late innings.
He felt like he turned a corner on Thursday night, and that’s a very good thing for the Nationals. When Clippard has slogged through rough patches before, he seems to come out of them pitching better than ever.
During an 11-game stretch in 2010, Clippard faced 61 batters in 11 2/3 innings and had a 10.80 ERA. He walked 10 and gave up 14 earned runs. Over the next 11 games, he faced 51 batters, struck out 20, walked eight and allowed just two earned runs — a 1.42 ERA.
The Nationals hope that’s what will happen now for their essential right-hander.
“That’s kind of the goal,” Clippard said of righting himself at the perfect time. “I’m not too worried, at this point in the season, about my numbers or anything like that. I just want to get going for the playoffs, get right for that. Time it up right so I can go on a good stretch here for the last month or so of the season, for the playoffs.”