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“As a starter, I wanted to strike guys out. I felt like having a strikeout per inning was an important stat,” Clippard said. “What happened when I did that, I wasn’t able to go deep into games.

“Now that I’m a reliever, I can go in there and throw the wagon at them as far as my stuff and pitch the way I want to pitch.”

Letting his stuff fly without worrying about pitch counts was the easy part. Adjusting to the pace was another matter, something most converted relievers deal with at first. A starter can map out much of his season in advance, knowing when he is going to pitch and who he is going to face. A reliever could get the call every night. Or get the call to warm up and not pitch. Clippard joked that relievers’ contracts should include incentive clauses for the number of times they are asked to warm up but not pitch.

“That was the hardest thing to get used to, sitting down there 5-6 innings with the anticipation of going into a game,” he said. “You finally get up, you get warmed up, you throw one inning and it is over. Man, that’s it? Now that I’ve done it a while, those nervous feelings have subsided. There’s definitely a different mindset for the bullpen, for sure.”

Dennis Eckersley, one of the few to enjoy sustained success as a starter and a reliever, said those who can handle the “adrenaline rush” of the pace of the bullpen can be better than people imagined. That pretty much sums up Clippard.

“You never know how they’re going to take that rush,” Eckersley said. “It’s almost like there’s more confidence. A lot of guys surprise themselves. They can handle that rush and they can do stuff you can’t believe you could do. They get some confidence and everybody’s like, ‘What happened?’”

***

Stammen, 29, wasn’t really in the Nats’ plans for 2012. He’d made 19 starts in each of 2009 and 2010 with an ERA above five both seasons, though he pitched with large bone chips in his right elbow for part of that time. He had his moments, such as a 3-0 victory over the Yankees in New York in 2009, but the Nationals were overflowing with starting pitching last spring. Even John Lannan, twice an Opening Day starter, was squeezed out as the team had Stephen Strasburg returning from Tommy John surgery and Gio Gonzalez acquired in a trade as part of an upgraded rotation.

A series of five relief appearances after a September 2011 callup from the minor leagues showed maybe there was another role for Stammen. He pitched well during the spring last year. This time, Lannan was sent to the minors. Stammen had a new home — in the bullpen. He’s 11-4 as a reliever and his ERA has been below three every season. During one game last year, he struck out six Phillies in two innings. Earlier this year, he threw four perfect innings after Strasburg had to leave with an injury.

“With the amount of knowledge and experience I’ve gotten, I feel like I’ve gotten better every year,” Stammen said. “If I was starting every one of those years, do I think I would be much better? Yes. But I’ve found a niche in the bullpen where I have some value to the team and I’ve been pitching well.

“I don’t think I’m going to leave that role.”

Starting had its mental challenges, Stammen noted, just as relieving does. It goes back to his point about experience and natural development. Maybe he would have found similar success as a starter by now. That he found it in the bullpen, though, is fine with him. Being a major-league reliever beats being a minor-league starter.

“The physical aspect has very little to do with it,” Stammen said. “It is all about the mental side, being able to manage the ups and downs of a baseball game, of a season. I know when I was starting, it was always hard for me to string good outings together. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how to manage those ups and downs and stay on an even keel.”

***

Krol, 22, has found the more unpredictable life of a reliever much to his liking. He had a 12-14 record in the minors, mostly as a starter. This season has been his first as a full-time reliever and the numbers have been staggering. He posted a 0.69 ERA in 21 innings at Double-A Harrisburg. The Nationals called him up June 4 and he’s been just as impressive. The first hitter he faced got a hit. It was the only hit he gave up in his first 8 2/3 innings. He walked one and struck out 12 in that span. The only left-hander of the three, he’s still in awe of being in the majors so soon even as his performance says otherwise.

Story Continues →