- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2009

PITTSBURGH | When the bullpen gate swung open in the fifth inning Monday night, Tyler Clippard came jogging in hoping simply to keep this ballgame respectable.

The Washington Nationals trailed the Pittsburgh Pirates by three runs, had looked quite unsightly in creating that deficit and now faced a bases-loaded, no-out jam.

But with one unexpected and dazzling play, Clippard saved the inning and in the process saved the ballgame.

By the time this one was over, the Nationals had escaped PNC Park with an 8-4 victory that didn’t seem possible four innings earlier but became reality thanks to Clippard’s brilliant relief appearance and a barrage of big hits from Washington’s lineup.

With eight runs in a span of two innings, the Nationals (34-72) turned the game upside-down and salvaged a split both of this four-game series and of their eight-game trip to Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.

The change in momentum was attributable entirely to Clippard’s entrance in that bases-loaded jam. Pittsburgh’s Delwyn Young smoked a ball back up the middle, but Clippard snagged it and fired to the plate to set in motion a 1-2-3 double play. And when Andy LaRoche subsequently popped out, the inning was over and the deficit remained only 3-0.

Clippard wasn’t finished earning his sixth career win. He followed up that great escape job with two more hitless innings, making up for Garrett Mock’s rough start and giving the Nationals’ lineup time to produce the winning rallies.

Stymied for five innings by rookie right-hander Charlie Morton, Washington finally sprang to life thanks to a three-run homer from Adam Dunn. The big slugger’s 27th homer of the year wasn’t a typical blast but rather an opposite-field poke that snaked just inside the foul pole.

No matter how he hit it, Dunn’s homer gave the Nationals the lead. And it set the stage for even more offense an inning later. Despite back-to-back strikeouts to open the seventh, Washington wound up scoring four more runs thanks in large part to a Cristian Guzman triple and a Ryan Zimmerman homer that left the sparse crowd of 11,630 booing.

That the Nationals even had the opportunity to retake the lead after another shaky start from Mock was astounding. In his fourth outing since getting called up from Class AAA Syracuse, the right-hander was all over the place. In four innings-plus three batters, he allowed seven hits, walked four and required three separate mound visits from pitching coach Steve McCatty.

Mock’s continued struggles at the major league level perhaps leave his status in question. With rookie Jordan Zimmermann close to returning from the disabled list, the Nationals will need to demote someone from the current rotation, and Mock has made himself a candidate with his performance over the last three weeks.

The right-hander dominated in the minors before his promotion, going 5-1 with a 1.52 ERA in eight starts. But he hasn’t come close to mastering big league hitters, as evidenced by his 0-4 record, 6.75 ERA and astounding 65 men put on base in 30 2/3 innings with Washington this season.

Despite his struggles Monday, Mock somehow allowed only three runs, all of them coming in the first via an Andrew McCutchen leadoff homer (the rookie’s fourth of the series) and a couple of singles aided by an Elijah Dukes error.

Still, the 26-year-old hurler left his team in a tenuous spot, loading the bases with no outs in the fifth before interim manager Jim Riggleman mercifully yanked him. Clippard entered from the bullpen hoping to keep the damage to one, maybe two runs.

Little did he — or the Nationals — realize he would make the play that would turn this entire game around and allow his team to head home in good spirits.

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