As Nationals’ bullpen struggles, Tyler Clippard remains a rock

There was a moment a few nights ago when Tyler Clippard fed Giancarlo Stanton three straight fastballs with the game on the line. Challenge aggressiveness with aggressiveness, the right-hander figured.

The hulking slugger, the one batter in a depleted Miami Marlins lineup who can strike uncommon fear into opposing pitchers, looked at the first one and swung through the next two.


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Three straight fastballs. In a one-run game. Three straight strikes. One out.

“I think [Stanton] probably walked back to the dugout thinking: ‘What just happened?’” Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond said.

“I feel more comfortable with a high fastball,” Clippard said with a shrug. “That’s just how I pitch.”

And just like that, Clippard’s remarkable season rolled on.

Stanton could at least take solace in knowing that, for the better part of the past three years, he’s not alone in feeling that way after an at-bat against the Nationals‘ lanky set-up man.

The other day, manager Davey Johnson found himself taking a look at some of the stats for his pitching staff. He glanced at the numbers accompanying Clippard’s name and did a double take when he got to the ‘hit’ column. Twenty-eight hits? All year? Could that be right?

Indeed, in 60 1/3 innings this season, facing 230 batters, Clippard has allowed 28 total hits. He has walked 20, given up seven home runs and allowed 15 runs to score while he’s been on the mound (13 earned runs, two inherited runners). That’s a 1.94 ERA. All year. In three days, it will be September.

“It’s ridiculous,” right-hander Craig Stammen said. “It’s unbelievable. I don’t even really understand it, to be honest.

“To me, he’s the best reliever — best noncloser reliever — in the game. He’s probably better than most closers. He could close for a ton of teams, he just hasn’t gotten that shot.”

Clippard does not get as much publicity as he should. He has not been credited with a single save this season, though he did collect 32 in 2012. He transitioned back into a setup role seamlessly.

But in a year in which Johnson has struggled to find the right components in his bullpen, and watched many of his relievers melt down, there has been one constant: Clippard.

“I think he’s figured himself out even more than he had in the past,” Stammen said. “He’s always been really confident, but he’s very comfortable with how he’s pitching and he understands the process. His mindset’s about perfect.”

His effectiveness is remarkable. The numbers are jaw-dropping. The results, like with Stanton, can leave plenty shaking their heads.

But perhaps Clippard’s most impressive quality is his consistency. Relieving is a fickle business. Perhaps the most fickle of any job on a major league roster. Plenty of shutdown relievers come off a breakout year and prove just how hard it is to do by struggling in the next.

Over the past three seasons, there are few in the major leagues who have been less volatile. Few who have done what he has, at as high a level as he has, on a near nightly basis.

“He’s the most consistent pitcher I’ve had in some time,” Johnson said. “And his numbers are off the charts.”

As the Nationals head into the season’s final month hoping to continue to chip their way back into playoff contention, they know they’re going to continue to need him. Johnson mentioned Thursday he planned on leaning on Clippard “heavily” down the stretch.

To most inside the clubhouse that comes as no surprise, and there’s no one they’d rather see with more work placed on his shoulders. The thought of where they’d be without him is not one they’d like to pursue.

“Without him,” Stammen said, letting out a laugh and shaking his head. “We’d be in a lot of bad spots.”

NOTES: The Nationals will not bring Stephen Strasburg back on short rest to start Sunday night’s game against the New York Mets, Johnson said Thursday. Strasburg threw just 22 pitches before rain ended his start Wednesday. But because the Nationals would prefer not to alter Strasburg’s usual routine, Johnson said the team will likely start Ross Ohlendorf, or, if he is not needed in relief before then, rookie Tanner Roark.

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