PHILADELPHIA — Tyler Clippard knew something was amiss. That something was different. In the midst of a miserable September that stood in stark contrast to the way he’d pitched for the first five months, he sought out old video.
He went back and looked at his delivery from when he was throwing well, games from 2010 and his All-Star 2011 season. What he saw affirmed what he’d been feeling: that his weight was, in the words of pitching coach Steve McCatty, “kind of going backward.”
It was ridding him of some of the imperative deception that his funky delivery provides, particularly on his devastating high fastball. His ERA from April through August was 2.73 and opponents hit just .161 off him. In September, it’s 9.64 and opponents have hit him at a .386 clip.
“I could feel myself doing it, and I kind of wanted to see what I was doing when I was going really good,” Clippard said of his quest, conceding that his unique delivery occasionally makes it difficult for others to spot what he’s feeling. “Some of the key things that I was looking for, little differences, and I noticed it.”
He hashed it out with McCatty, who had been noticing the same tendency. The two discussed it during a side session when the Nationals were rained out last week, and they chatted about it again in the clubhouse Sunday, two days after Clippard had allowed three earned runs in the ninth inning to turn a 2-1 lead into a 4-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.
“He’s got to stay with his weight over his hips and over his knees, better balanced,” McCatty said Tuesday, after Clippard had been used in the eighth inning Monday for the first time since May 20, before he was assigned the closer’s role. “Just a directional thing. He has a tendency to fly open and fall off. He’s just got to stay out a little longer.”
McCatty and Clippard believed he had been better Monday in an inning in which he got two quick outs and then surrendered a pop-fly single to Ryan Braun. Aramis Ramirez followed with a double to give the Brewers a run, but Clippard escaped further damage.
“I felt really good [Monday],” Clippard said. “It was kind of a frustrating outing for me because I felt really good, but I took some positives away from it and I feel really good right now, so that’s all I can ask for.”
Since Drew Storen has returned from elbow surgery and continued to round into the form that made him a 43-save closer a year ago, the question of who would close the biggest games has come up frequently. But manager Davey Johnson had rarely wavered from Clippard, who has 32 saves despite not closing for the first two months.
Now he’s choosing to play the matchups.
“Clip’s struggling a little bit,” Johnson said Monday. “I have confidence in both of them. Right now, I’m gonna go to Storen. But in Philadelphia, which has a lot of left-handed hitters, Clip’s always been very good there. You don’t have to put a name on it all the time. The guy that goes out there is the closer that day.”
Regardless of which inning he’s pitching, it’s imperative for the Nationals to have Clippard at his highest level as they begin the playoffs.
“I’ve been through this for a long time with Clip,” McCatty said. “We know what the problems can be for him. And he’s thrown so well last year and this year that you see things, but a lot of times you don’t want to go out and say, ‘You’ve got to do this or this,’ you just kind of let a guy go through it and feel it.
“One good clean inning, and [he’ll be] right back to normal.” A lot of times you get out there and you start fighting yourself. You end up doing more than you try to do. We know he’s been great. Everybody has one of those patches.”