VIERA, Fla. | Inside a sparsely populated clubhouse Sunday afternoon, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen sat at their adjacent lockers and shared a few minutes of conversation - and a fist bump.
Their cause for slight celebration was getting out of the Nationals' 6-1 loss to the Tigers by allowing just one earned run between them, charged to Storen.
It had been a rough week for Storen and Clippard - two of the Nationals' best relievers in 2010 - and an especially trying 10 days for the pair. How tough? The outings helped bring the right-handers spring ERAs down to 11.74 for Storen and 12.79 for Clippard.
It's those kind of performances that have the Nationals nearly face-to-face with the regular season and without a defined closer in their bullpen. As a result, the phrase 'closer by committee' has entered the Nationals' lexicon.
"I don't even want to use the word," said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman when asked about his team's 'closer' situation last week. "We're just going to try to get the outs in the ninth inning."
The Nationals have plenty of candidates to do that. On paper - and coming into camp - Storen, Clippard, Todd Coffey and Henry Rodriguez were considered their best options to do so, but none of the four has performed convincingly enough in camp to warrant a declaration that they are the guy.
"Everybody who's struggled has also been real good at times," Riggleman said, explaining the dilemma. "It's not an action on my part. It's a reaction to how they're pitching. If somebody's actions dictate that they're clearly the best guy here for the ninth inning, then I'll react to that."
"I think it's the right thing to do," Storen, who continued his improvement with a scoreless ninth on Tuesday, said. "If it's by committee all year, that's fine. As long as we're winning that's really all that matters. As long as I'm a part of that bullpen, I don't care if I'm throwing fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth. I'm not going to care."
The Nationals have made it clear that all involved would prefer if one player would set himself above. If history is any guide, they're smart to hope so. Putting together a so-called closer by committee has led to some disastrous results - most notably for the 2003 Boston Red Sox, who tried it with Alan Embree, Chad Fox, Ramiro Mendoza and Mike Timlin.
When it has worked, like it did for the Atlanta Braves for the first half of 2009, it's because it's been done with pitchers who could most likely close games in their own right, alone. For Atlanta, that was Michael Gonzalez and Rafael Soriano, both of whom were put into closer roles with new teams in years since.
In San Francisco, the Giants are facing a similar conundrum with the prospect of Brian Wilson starting the season on the disabled list. The opinion of one reliever who would fill in for him was clear.
"A closer by committee does not work," Jeremy Affeldt told the San Jose Mercury News. "It baffles me every time a manager tries it. Most managers have been in the game a long time. They should know better. You might go committee until someone emerges, fine. But you'll see more blown saves along the way."
The Nationals have a mix of pitchers who are performing well this spring - Sean Burnett (0.00 ERA in 7 1/3 innings), Doug Slaten (2.79; 9 2/3 innings), Collin Balester (1.93; 9 1/3 innings) - and plenty of them would relish the role.
"It'd be a huge honor," Burnett said Tuesday. "It's something I never thought I'd be in a position to do, being a soft-tossing lefty, I never assumed I'd be a closer. It'd be a challenge and an opportunity I'd look forward to."
But they also have guys with proven records in the major leagues who aren't having as much success this spring as they have when they're tasked with pitching when it counts. Storen (10.38), Clippard (12.79) and Coffey (7.27) fall into that category.
As a result, the Nationals are left trying to play the matchups.
Pitching coach Steve McCatty cautions that it's not always a bad thing to remember what guys have done outside of the six weeks they spend in Florida each year. Burnett struggled throughout spring training in 2010, allowing 11 earned runs in just eight innings, a performance he called "embarrassing at times." He put up a 2.14 ERA during the regular season and allowed just 15 earned runs in 63 innings of work.
"It still could be any of those guys," McCatty said. "Remember, last year when we had [Matt] Capps? He didn't have a good spring either."
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