The Washington Times - September 4, 2012, 12:17AM

Along the way this season, Tyler Clippard has collected each ball from his saves. It started with No. 1 on a late May night in Philadelphia, after Clippard had served in his former eighth-inning role for weeks to start the season and the Nationals had cycled through closer candidates in Drew Storen’s absence.

On Monday afternoon, Clippard added ball No. 30 to his collection. Save No. 30.


In essentially three months, Clippard reached a round number that only two previous relievers in Nationals history had crossed. Clippard joined teammate Drew Storen (43 saves in 2011) and former Nationals closer Chad Cordero, who did it twice, with the fourth 30-save season in team history.

“It’s a nice feather on the cap,” Clippard said. “I think, more importantly, it’s been fun to contribute to a lot of wins we’ve had this year. That’s the most fun part for me.”

Clippard struck out Josh Vitters to end the Nationals’ 2-1 victory over the Cubs on Monday, sealing the first winning season in D.C. since 1969.

It was an important victory, one that kept the Nationals 6 1/2 games ahead of the Atlanta Braves and made their magic number (a combination of Nationals wins and Braves losses) to clinch the division 22. And the significance was not lost on most in the clubhouse.

“That’s a huge amount,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said of Clippard’s saves. “Because he didn’t close the first five weeks or something. I know he’s counting them.”

“He’s doing great,” said first baseman Adam LaRoche. “For not doing it, and getting thrown to the spot he was, to step up and run with it, he’s doing great. On top of it, Drew’s getting back. I’m looking back and he’s throwing 95, 96, so he’s getting back and able to help out late in games, too. So it’s a pretty lethal combination.”

LaRoche’s point was also one that was not missed. Storen, who missed more than half the season after having a bone chip removed from his right elbow, takes one step closer to a return to form — or better — with each outing. Sean Burnett will be down for a few days, at least, with some elbow tenderness and Storen’s re-emergence as a significant threat late in games continues to be paramount for the Nationals.

On Monday it was Storen who pitched a perfect eighth inning to set things up for Clippard. In 2011 it was the other way around. But by the end of 2012, the Nationals will need both of them to be operating at their best and both will most likely end up closing games. 

Both players will also be arbitration eligible after this season, and while their goals are squarely team-oriented at this point in the season, it’s important to note that those save numbers go a long way in the arbitration process and deciding a player’s salary for the following season. 

“(It’s) impressive,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “I think (Clippard) and (Storen) were kind of the eighth and ninth inning guys the past couple years. (Clippard’s) been a big part of this team as far as kind of being the closer in the eighth inning.

“Obviously nothing compares to getting the last three outs. It’s the hardest thing to do in this sport. But those two guys, the stuff that they have, the makeups that they have, both of those guys are as good as they come for the eighth and ninth inning.”