Clippard: All-Star reliever turned perfect closer

When asked what Tyler Clippard’s key to success is, Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty told me his changeup is going really good, but most off all, “He’s all a@# and elbows coming at you.”

I think that means he’s deceptive. And that just might be my favorite quote of the year.

Clippard’s mechanics are far from textbook, but according to McCatty, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Clippard says it’s hard to tell if closing is the role he was destined to fill, but he’s been a quick study over the past three years.

“I got to watch a lot of people work,” Clippard said. “I was always a set-up guy, or a middle-inning guy, so I got to see what that role entailed. As I got more confidence as far as what I was doing out on the mound, it was something I felt I could do. I got my opportunity and it’s working out.”

This time last year, the Nationals’ reliever was heading to his first All-Star Game. He was the Nats’ sole representative selected by National League manager Bruce Bochy.

tyler-clippard-red-follow-through-sidebar.jpgClippard deserved it after an outstanding first half, which turned into his best career year. The then 26-year-old ended the 2011 season with an impressive 1.86 ERA in 72 appearances.

But that was as a set-up man. Drew Storen, who was the Nationals’ closer, was on his way to converting 43-of-48 save opportunities. Clippard did have seven save opportunities in 2011, but he failed to record one save. At the time, it looked as if closing wasn’t his thing. Clippard was solid, but in the eighth inning.

This season, early injuries to Storen, Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez have left the closing duties to Clippard, and this time, he’s delivered. Since becoming the closer in May, he’s a perfect 9-for-9 in save opportunities. Four of those saves came on the road last week against the power-hitting AL East teams.

His approach was to stay away from the big inning.

“You want to keep those extra runners off base, because you know there are a lot of power hitters in their lineup and if you make a mistake, they’re eventually going to get you every now and then,” Clippard said. “Limiting the damage is the best way to go about it.”

Clippard has done more than limit the damage lately, but don’t necessarily expect him to make the 2012 NL All-Star roster. His nine saves pale in comparison to other NL closers like Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel (19), San Francisco’s Santiago Casilla (18) and even former Nat-turned-Pirate Joel Hanrahan (17).

Plus, this year’s NL manager Tony LaRussa most likely won’t be forced to select a lone Nationals representative. Multiple Nationals like Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and even Bryce Harper could be voted onto the All-Star roster by the fans, managers and players.

All-Star or not, Clippard has been a big factor in the Nationals’ success and a pleasant surprise considering he was just a ninth-round draft pick selected by the Yankees in 2003. He pitched one year in the big leagues for the Bronx Bombers, mostly as a starter, in 2007 before being traded to Washington. Clippard appreciates the opportunity he had to study Mariano Rivera, the best closer of all time.

“I was more or less a fly on the wall,” Clippard said. “I was trying to stay out of his way. In 2007, I was the young guy, but I just noticed how calm he was at all times and how he kept himself composed and together. He had a routine that he always stuck with no matter what. He worked hard. Everything you wanted in a good player, he brought to the table. He’s someone I looked up to a lot.”

Clippard looked up to the best and now, coming into his prime at 27 years old, he looks to solidify his position as one of the most reliable relievers in the National League. Where he lands after Storen’s return somewhere near the All-Star break is unknown. But, having two arms that can be used to close games is a good problem for Davey Johnson to have.