PHOENIX — The road from Viera, Fla., to Syracuse, N.Y. is nearly 1,300 miles long. It’s a grueling 20-hour trip from the Florida coast to the brink of the Canadian border, but in the spring of 2009, Tyler Clippard needed every minute of it.
In his car that April day, Clippard fumed. A little more than a year removed from a trade that took him from the only professional organization he’d ever known and brought him to Washington, the Nationals were telling him they wanted him to change. The memories of his dazzling debut as a starting pitcher in a New York Yankees uniform were fading. His future, pitching coach Steve McCatty told him, was as a reliever.
The questions raced through Clippard’s mind. Outwardly, he told McCatty and the Nationals he’d do whatever they wanted. Inwardly, he wondered: Why don’t they think I’m good enough to start? Does this mean they don’t like me as a pitcher anymore? Will I be good at relieving?
“Being a starter was something I always wanted to do,” Clippard said, recalling dominant minor league seasons that included a Double-A no-hitter. “That was the goal the whole time, throughout the whole process of development in the minor leagues and through everything I accomplished in the minor leagues. I always had my goals set in that direction.”
Clippard spent the ride pondering the Nationals’ request. He spoke for a while with his agent, Casey Close, and his father, Bob. He talked about the Nationals’ reasoning: his high pitch counts, his tendency to get hit around the third time through a lineup. By the time he arrived in Syracuse, Clippard was on board.
“I went from being almost devastated to having a higher energy level than ever before,” he said.
At 24, Clippard already had endured his share of obstacles — personally and professionally. What was one more?
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As Clippard takes in his first All-Star Game experience this week, the Nationals are working their way into contention. They’re putting pieces together that, they hope, will build a club that competes with the elite each year. In so many ways, Clippard and closer Drew Storen are integral cogs in that plan.
A unique “one-two punch,” as Clippard called them, puts the Nationals in position to lock down close games. If and when they get to do that on even bigger stages, it will be another step in the journey for Clippard, one that reached a milepost this week when he arrived in Arizona.
But he can’t help but reflect on the struggles that came before. It wasn’t even 10 years ago that the right-hander was one of the top high school prospects in Florida without a team to play on, with off-the-field issues taking precedence over his baseball talent.
“Socially, he was doing what a lot of high school kids are doing and chasing a good time,” said Roy Silver, a former pro baseball player and the vice president of The Winning Inning in Clearwater, Fla. “His coach told him one more time and he was gone. He was one of the top pitchers in the area, so it was pretty big news that he got kicked off his team at the beginning of the season.”
It wasn’t Clippard’s finest hour, as he readily admits now with the maturity that age and life experience will give a person. But it did lead him to Silver, who has helped shape his share of MLB All-Stars in players such as Texas’ Josh Hamilton and Philadelphia’s Placido Polanco. In a list of people who have been influential in getting Clippard to this point, he puts Silver third behind only his parents.
The two talked less about baseball and more about life over the course of the 20 or so sessions Bob Clippard purchased for Tyler that year. Working with Silver would keep Clippard sharp and in front of pro scouts, but the benefits went further than that. Clippard took a hit when he was kicked off the team. A ninth-round pick by the Yankees, Clippard could have gone higher in the 2003 draft, and he forfeited bonus money in the process. Maturing through that was Silver’s focus. The essence of their talks was this: “If your arm falls off, are you going to crawl up in the corner, or go do something with your life?”
“When I tell you I’m a big fan of Tyler Clippard that’s an understatement,” Silver said. “When people make bad decisions and they fall down, if that doesn’t humble them, nothing will. He was humbled. He dusted himself off and, with the bad decisions he made, any other stumbling block hasn’t been as big.”
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On most days, Clippard relaxes in the Nationals’ clubhouse before games and plays games on his iPad with teammates. He bounces around with a walk that has earned him the nickname “The Lunge” from McCatty, wearing a 22Fresh T-shirt that reads “Chill.” on the front — a slogan that wholly embodies his personality.
“I stress a lot,” said Storen, who’s also Clippard’s lockermate and roommate. “I’m very plan-oriented. I’m like, ‘This is how this is going to happen,’ and Clip’s like ‘Whatever.’ It sounds bad, but he’s a very simple person.”
Nothing about the way he pitches, however, is simple. Taking the mound in rec specs that have developed a cult following, his 6-foot-3 frame supports lengthy limbs and a delivery that has evolved from when Clippard was 8. His father told him to throw his glove toward the target, and that approach has produced one of the most deceptive motions in the National League. It’s why, for the most part, he can toss a high mid-90s fastball over the plate and hitters still have no chance.
“That’s ‘The Funk,’ ” McCatty says with a smile describing Clippard’s unorthodox delivery. “He comes at you and everything’s flying everywhere. I laugh at the glasses because everybody talks about them. I don’t even notice the glasses.
“If you’re teaching Mechanics 101, I don’t have a Clip chapter. I don’t do that. I’ve told him that. But that’s the beauty of this game. Everybody’s unique. All that stuff that he has, it makes him what he is.”
What he is this year is one of the elite setup men in baseball. He has 63 strikeouts in 51 1/3 innings, the second-most among relievers in the majors behind Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel. After a year in which he allowed 39 percent of inherited runners to score, Clippard has let in just six of 32 this season.
“He throws from an angle that’s real high and it comes at a downward angle so his high fastball for a strikeout is effective,” said fellow NL All-Star and Cincinnati first baseman Joey Votto. “Nobody can hit that.”
“Playing catch with him, I can see why,” Storen said. “It’s a pain just trying to catch him, let alone trying to hit him. It’s just amazing. It’s to the point where he goes out there and he’ll just throw a fastball right by guys and it looks like 100. I go in there and I throw a fastball and they hit it. It’s like ‘OK, what’s going on?’”
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As the reality of his All-Star selection set in for Clippard, the memory of watching the game as a Little Leaguer was foremost on his mind. Clippard remembered retreating to his Florida home with his fellow Little League All-Star teammates and watching the big leaguers do their thing.
“We’d watch those guys sit on the sidelines and videotape the Home Run Derby and cut up,” he said. “To think that I’m going to be one of those guys is kind of really cool.”
Clippard enjoyed a relaxing dinner with his father Sunday night in Phoenix. His mom, Debbie, and his girlfriend, Brittany Westwood, joined them a few hours later. All three, as well as his brother Colin, will be in attendance at Chase Field on Tuesday night.
He has no idea when he’ll pitch. He doesn’t even know if he’ll pitch in a bullpen that includes Kimbrel, Pittsburgh’s Joel Hanrahan and San Francisco’s Brian Wilson. One thing he does know is that he’s come a long way. Now, and for the rest of his life, he’ll be known as an All-Star reliever.
“I hope this isn’t the pinnacle, but when you’re an All-Star, that’s pretty cool,” Silver said. “You’re at the top of the mountain, and I hope he can stay there, but I’m not surprised.”