- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2012

PHILADELPHIA — As Henry Rodriguez took the mound at Citizens Bank Park on Monday night, all eyes from the Washington Nationals’ dugout and bullpen were on him. The warm-up pitches, they knew, would tell them all they needed to know.

In the dugout, manager Davey Johnson stood with pitching coach Steve McCatty nearby. Craig Stammen, the right-hander who’d just posted two consecutive scoreless innings, sat on the bench. There was no discussion, no thought even, to bringing Stammen back for a third inning. He could have done it, physically, but he was not asked.

One of Rodriguez’s warm-up tosses went to the backstop. In the bullpen, several relievers shifted in their seats. Tyler Clippard, Ryan Perry, Tom Gorzelanny and Sean Burnett were available.

“It’s a fine line,” Clippard said Tuesday. “We as relievers, we’re down there and we wait for the call. It’s Davey’s choice where he wants to use us.”

Rodriguez’s first two pitches were balls that Jesus Flores struggled to handle. McCatty picked up the bullpen phone. Burnett began warming in a hurry.

“Once the phone rings,” Burnett said, “it’s go time.”

The Nationals moved Rodriguez out of the closer role Tuesday after his latest meltdown, Johnson choosing instead to patch the final inning of the team’s games together based on matchups and the freshness of his relievers. Without Drew Storen until close to the All-Star break and Brad Lidge down until mid-June, that leaves Burnett, Tyler Clippard and Craig Stammen as the team’s most likely closing options. Combined they have 11 career saves - 10 of them Burnett‘s.

Rodriguez will move to a “less demanding role,” Johnson said as the team attempts to get the flamethrowing-but-wild right-hander “back on track.”

So that leaves basically three other relievers to close games. Ryan Mattheus was placed on the disabled list Tuesday with a partial tear of the plantar fascia in his left foot. Chien-Ming Wang, who replaced him on the roster, will not be used in late relief. Tom Gorzelanny also is likely not a main candidate as a long reliever.

The decision in the late innings will be Clippard, Stammen or Burnett.

“I want it bad,” Clippard said, though the Nationals remain reluctant to remove the All-Star set-up man from his vital role. “I’ve been fighting for the opportunity for three years now. I feel like I’ve been overstepped a few times along the way for the opportunity to get those saves, for whatever reason. I don’t really know.”

Burnett closed games at the start of 2011 before Storen seized the role.

“I’m just going to do what they ask me to do, the way it’s always been,”he said. “I’m just trying to help the team out.”

Said Stammen, who closed at the University of Dayton: “I’ll leave that up to [the manager]. “We’ll see. I don’t think I’ve quite earned it yet.”

It’s a delicate situation for all involved as they try to be sensitive to the plight of Rodriguez, who spent several minutes talking with Lidge in the outfield Tuesday afternoon, but also recognize the opportunity in front of them.

The Nationals are in a position where they need to be confident in their pitcher at the end of the game. All three appeared ready to answer the call when the phone rings.

“If you’re a bullpen guy in the big leagues, in my opinion, you want to be a closer,” Clippard said. “That’s the premier job as a bullpen guy. If you’re not going to be a starter, you might as well want to do that.

“There’s no secret. It’s the kind of natural progression of anybody’s career. You want to be the best at what you do. In my opinion, the guys who are the best at what they do in the bullpen usually get closers jobs.”

Notes: Ryan Zimmerman was a late scratch Tuesday as a “manager’s decision.” A spokesman said the third baseman likely would be available to pinch hit. Zimmerman appeared to be fine pre-game in the clubhouse. Chad Tracy, who turned 32 on Tuesday, took his place. Zimmerman missed 13 games earlier this season with inflammation in his right AC joint.

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