Shadows crept toward Tyler Clippard until finally, a few minutes after 5 p.m., they covered the Washington Nationals' right-hander.
Innings drifted away like Sunday's sun until Clippard was left on the darkened mound at Nationals Park staring at Cincinnati Reds slugger Joey Votto in the 11th. Clippard, the All-Star setup man, wanted his four-seam fastball to go down and away. Instead, the 2-0 pitch floated over the middle of the plate.
Votto didn't miss the mistake. And his swing pushed the Reds past the Nationals 8-5 in 11 innings to dodge a sweep in the four-game series.
"I just didn't have it," Clippard said. A series of miscues in and out of the Nationals' control set up Clippard's errant fastball to end the series on a forgettable note. Clippard had trouble getting loose before Saturday's game and manager Davey Johnson didn't want to use him Sunday. Shoulder discomfort bothers Clippard each spring and, according to Johnson, flared again.
"This has lingered a little longer," Johnson said.
But Clippard insisted his arm is fine, the discomfort was nothing outside the ordinary pattern of his career and he felt "really good." He didn't struggle to warm up. And Clippard's fastball touched its usual 94 mph. The problem, he believed, was pitch selection and, of course, the heave to Votto.
Votto, who inked a 10-year, $225 million extension with the Reds earlier this month, was intentionally walked twice Sunday. Finally getting a chance to swing the bat with two men on and one out in the 11th, he lined Clippard's fastball over left fielder Mark DeRosa's head and to the wall.
DeRosa is the Nationals' positional Swiss Army knife, able to play six spots. But just 86 of his 1,052 career games came in left and he wasn't able to make a play for the ball. Two runs scored.
However, problems started long before. In the first, left-hander Ross Detwiler appeared to get out of the inning when first baseman Adam LaRoche pulled down shortstop Ian Desmond's high throw to put out Scott Rolen. First-base umpire Mike Everitt ruled Rolen safe. Replays showed the opposite.
"I thought we caught a couple bad breaks," Johnson said.
After walking Jay Bruce, Detwiler appeared to strike out Ryan Ludwick with the bases loaded. The pitch was called a ball. Then Ludwick smacked Detwiler's 2-2 fastball over the yellow W.B. Mason sign in center field for a grand slam.
Four runs for the Reds (4-6) and 18 pitches for Detwiler came after the call at first. Detwiler, who threw 81 pitches over five innings, declined comment on the umpiring.
Detwiler wasn't pleased with his sinker while Johnson didn't believe his fifth starter is stretched out enough.
"I guess I didn't react all that well," Detwiler said. "I put so much pressure on the bullpen....It was terrible."
The Nationals (7-3), though, couldn't take advantage of numerous opportunities to erase the inning. Yes, they rallied to tie the game at 5-5 on Rick Ankiel's seventh-inning double. But the team finished 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position and left six men on base.
Situational hitting suffered, too, with first-pitch outs by Danny Espinosa and Jayson Werth that didn't suffice to move runners over.
Johnson thinks that problem will disappear when Ryan Zimmerman, whose 0-for-4 day dropped his average to .179, returns to form.
"Once he gets warmed up, all this will be academic," Johnson said. "The makeup on this ballclub is to want to do it so bad to get overly aggressive."
Nothing was academic Sunday for the Nationals. And the mistakes left Clippard in the shadows as the baseball and the ballgame got away.
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