PHILADELPHIA — Fifty-one times this season, the bullpen doors have opened, Tyler Clippard has ascended the mound, and a scoreless appearance has followed.
The occasions when this has not happened are so few they can be counted on two hands. Performing in a role that, as the Nationals’ bullpen has exemplified on many occasions this season, is so fickle the results can change with the wind, Clippard has been a constant.
In the quiet that engulfed the Nationals’ clubhouse Monday night, Clippard was perhaps the most sullen of any player.
When the bullpen doors opened and he descended the steps that lead to the right center field entrance at Citizens Bank Park, the Nationals handed him a newly acquired one-run lead. By the time manager Davey Johnson reluctantly came to take the ball from him six batters later, they trailed 3-2.
“It’s never easy, (to take) man,” Clippard said, his tone glum and his eyes searching to figure out how it could’ve unraveled the way it did — how it could’ve unraveled at all with him on the mound. “You could go 40 scoreless and give it up one night. It’s never easy. Losing (stinks).”
That 3-2 score was how it ended, a gut-wrenching loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at a time when any loss is not only difficult to digest, but detrimental to their playoff hopes. It was the third time in 62 appearances this season that Clippard had allowed two runs or more.
“It’s a stab in the heart,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to win these games.”
The Nationals fell 7.5 games behind the Cincinnati Reds in the race for the second wild card spot. Their playoff hopes, reaching crescendo levels on nights like Sunday when they pulled off a late comeback win, reached another valley. With 25 games remaining in the 2013 season, they will have to go 21-4 to reach the 90-win mark that Johnson has said on multiple occasions he thinks it’ll take to get in.
“We had opportunities,” Johnson said. “We didn’t capitalize on them. We had the right guys up there… We’re just not getting it done.”
Stephen Strasburg and Cole Hamels dueled for the better part of the game’s first six innings, but both were removed by the eighth with Strasburg departing after six at 100 pitches and Hamels leaving after seven.
They matched stat lines well, aside from the innings. Both allowed two hits and one run, though Strasburg’s was unearned. Strasburg, who reached a new career-high in innings at 164, walked two. Hamels walked none. The Nationals’ ace struck out 10, Hamels eight. The Phillies lefty allowed one home run, to Ryan Zimmerman, in the first inning. Then he retired 12 straight.
But the moment in which the Nationals realized just how quickly things had slipped away from them came in the eighth. With the bases loaded the inning before, Scott Hairston sent a sacrifice fly to shallow center and Anthony Rendon beat the throw. The Nationals, fired up after their comeback win the night before, were in position to do it again.
Clippard came in, and did what he has so many times: got outs. He retired the first two batters with relative ease. But a six-pitch walk to Phillies center fielder Cesar Hernandez began a different trend.
Jimmy Rollins followed with an RBI-double off the wall in right center field, fouling off five pitches in an eight-pitch at-bat. And Carlos Ruiz, coming to the plate after an intentional walk to Chase Utley, laced a single through the left side. Bryce Harper collected the ball and fired home. His throw beat Rollins, but Wilson Ramos had to step to his left to field it and Rollins adeptly adjusted his head-first slide to beat the sweeping tag.
In the outfield, Harper hunched over in disappointment. Behind home plate, Clippard stared at the sky.
“Just frustration, you know?” Clippard said of his thoughts at that moment. “(Rollins) made a good slide there. Bryce definitely had a chance to get him out, made a good throw. Ramos stepped maybe one step to his left and Rollins adjusted his slide accordingly and was safe.”
“Yeah,” he said. “That was frustrating.”
As Clippard made his way back to the dugout shortly thereafter, for what was only the second time this season he’d been pulled from a game due to ineffectiveness, he chastised himself for his inability to do what he so often accomplishes with ease.
Johnson said he pulled Clippard solely because he worried he’d throw too many pitches trying to get that final out, but the reasoning mattered little.
When he made his way out of the now mostly empty clubhouse late Monday night, Clippard still possessed one of the top 10 best ERAs among oft-used relievers in the league. One night won’t change the body of work he’s put together this season. But it was of little consolation, because it had, even if only slightly, changed the Nationals’ season.
“We know we’ve got to win these games,” Clippard said. “Stras pitched a heck of a game. It was kind of a pitching duel all night long and it was a battle of the bullpens. We feel like we should win those matchups.”