SAN DIEGO — He walked into the dugout pumping his fist and accepting excited high-fives from his teammates. Tyler Clippard's job was done. A seventh-inning jam had been escaped, a one-run Nationals lead preserved.
But when he returned a second time, it was with his head hung. Sympathetic pats from his teammates were of little consolation, despite their intentions. Clippard is the Nationals' fireman, their All-Star set-up man who plays Houdini on what seems like a nightly basis. Even with a bullpen stocked with rested arms, in yet another one-run game, Clippard is the one manager Davey Johnson wanted on the mound Thursday night.
To wriggle out of two jams, though, proved impossible. Even for Clippard. As Mark Kotsay's two-run double sailed into center field, the defining blow in a 2-1 loss to the San Diego Padres, the Nationals lost their first game in a week but still left San Diego with their sixth straight series victory.
"Tough game to lose," Johnson said, his voice quiet and raspy. "Clip's been so good. It's hard for me to think about hooking him."
Clippard, who was being asked to throw more than an inning for the first time this season, battled Kotsay for 12 pitches Tuesday night. It was a duel that the right-hander ultimately won, coaxing Kotsay into a pop out to short, and he knew that he had done so with his changeup — a pitch Johnson termed "otherworldly."
But Thursday night, he deviated from that formula. After a one-out walk and a Cameron Maybin bunt single, he threw Kotsay four straight fastballs, the fourth resulting in the game-winning double. Home plate umpire Scott Barry was neglecting a strike at the knees all evening, so Clippard forced his pitches up. Kotsay didn't miss.
"It was just poorly executed, and the pitch selection wasn't good either," Clippard said, using the word "frustrating" three different times in his post-game interview. "I've said it all along: I've got to stick to my strengths, and I just didn't do that out there tonight."
He shook his head and blinked, as if looking for another way to explain a result he's so rarely had to deal with as a reliever.
"It's frustrating," he said.
In hindsight, Johnson said, maybe he should have warmed up left-hander Sean Burnett, who got the final out in the eighth, earlier. He knew the Padres would be sending the lefty Kotsay up as a pinch hitter, but Clippard's splits reveal that he's just as effective against lefties as he is against righties. Anytime the thought entered his mind, though, Johnson pushed it out. Clippard was his guy.
"I mean, it's Tyler Clippard," Johnson said.
"He's done such a good job for us since I've been here," said right fielder Jayson Werth, his solo home run in the seventh the Nationals' only run of the night. "You've got to cut him some slack at some point."
And ultimately, as the Nationals roll out of San Diego and up to Los Angeles to meet the team with the second-best record in the National League, behind only their own, it was that lack of offense that did them in. Sure, an errant fastball from Clippard yielded the game-winner, but the Nationals tallied four hits all night, and only three off starter Edinson Volquez.
It was their ninth one-run game of the season but just the third one they've lost.
"Same stuff we've been talking about," said first baseman Adam LaRoche, who helped keep things scoreless until the eighth with a smooth glove flip to starter Edwin Jackson to end the sixth with a runner on third.
"If we keep playing these close games, somebody's going to come up with a big hit. It happened tonight."
That big hit ruined yet another sparkling starting pitching performance. Jackson exited the game in the seventh, turning the ball over to Clippard to get him out of a jam, with a 1-0 lead. It was the eighth scoreless outing for a Nationals starter this season — the first time in modern major league history that any starting staff has turned in eight scoreless performances in their first 19 games of the season.
The clubhouse was quiet as the team packed for its short bus ride to L.A., the loss a somewhat unfamiliar feeling to these Nationals. But even as some stewed, at 14-5, it was difficult for the team to be too down.
"The bright spot is we won the series again," Werth said. "We just need to keep doing that."
"Each time we have lost one-run games, we end up winning a series," Jackson added. "We have nothing to hold our heads down about."
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