In 2012, the Nationals watched from their own division as the Atlanta Braves put together a final inning formula for shutting down opponents.
With Eric O’Flaherty, Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel, the Braves had the seventh, eighth and ninth innings effectively extinguished for opposing hitters.
And with the Braves’ starting staff needing only to get through the sixth frame, the game was shortened to those 18 outs to start the game.
Venters, with his sinkerball, pitched 45 of his 53 1/3 late-inning calls in the seventh and eighth innings. Almost split down the middle, Venters tossed 22 1/3 frames in the seventh and 22 2/3 innings in the eighth. His most effective bulk inning was the seventh, when he had a 3.22 ERA with a 2.09 SO/BB ratio, surrendering just 11 runs.
Another lefty, O’Flaherty, took over ownership of the eighth inning. With 46 of his 61 late-inning appearances were in the eighth frame. His eighth-inning numbers were astounding: 0.68 ERA in 138 at-bats, with a 2.83 strikeout-to-walk ratio and just six runs allowed.
And, of course, the shutdown ninth was all about Kimbrel. With his high-mileage fastball, Kimbrel made 61 appearances in the ninth inning. He allowed just six runs in 60 1/3 innings. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was an incredible 8.62.
That is just 23 runs the entire season in the late innings from this trio.
Facing the Braves, the strategy is always to score early. But against an equally stellar starting staff, that proves difficult. Kris Medlen, Tim Hudson, Mike Minor, a healthy Brandon Beachy, Paul Maholm and Julio Teheran represent a staff that is designed to wear down hitters so the bullpen has easy late-inning work.
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo envisioned the final three innings with his bullpen and how they would be even more effective with veteran closer Rafael Soriano in the fold. Bumping the lethal changeup of Tyler Clippard to the seventh, the closer stuff of Drew Storen to the eighth and penciling Soriano in for the ninth provides the Nationals a 1-2-3 punch that matches the Braves, pitch for pitch.
Clippard tossed 46 innings in the ninth (3.13 ERA), 19 2/3 frames in the eighth (3.20 ERA) and two appearances in the seventh (0.00 ERA). He had a 3.09 ERA from the seventh inning on last season.
But if we go back one season prior, Clippard’s effectiveness in the seventh is more clear.
In 2011, Clippard made 35 appearances in the seventh frame, and 52 in the eighth. His work in the seventh that season was his best with a 1.38 ERA and a very good strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.29.
And to get to the seventh inning, opponents have to get through Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ross Detwiler and Dan Haren.
Rizzo knows quality pitching is necessary to win a division he’s constructed a combination of front-line starters and shutdown relievers. Soriano provides the Nationals with that seventh- through ninth-inning formula to match what the Braves were so well known for last season in their run to a wild card spot.
The race for 2013 will come down in large part to the bullpens of each team. If Storen and Clippard can buy into their new roles, the Nationals will be better equipped to smother opposing offenses in the final frames.