A half-inning after Ian Desmond’s solo home run off Colorado Rockies right-hander Matt Belisle put the Nationals up 4-3 in the series finale in the nation’s capital on Wednesday night, Nats set-up man Tyler Clippard took the mound with the top of the Rockies order due up.
The Nationals’ 29-year-old reliever came out of the bullpen to face Charlie Blackmon, Drew Stubbs and Justin Morneau, but if any of the three reached base, Troy Tulowitzki was due to bat fourth.
Blackmon lined out to left. Stubbs struck out swinging, but Morneau singled to right for his second hit of the night, putting the tying run on in front of Tulowitzki, who was 1-for-5 with two Ks lifetime against Clippard.
Clippard told reporters after the game, after striking out Tulowitzki with a diving 0-2 splitter, that he was confident that if he could get through the eighth, Rafael Soriano would lock down the ninth.
“Those late-inning situations,” he said, “especially one-run ballgames like that, you’re facing the heart of the lineup and I know as good as Sori has been going, if I can get through that meat of the order and hand the ninth inning off to him, more than likely he’s going to be able to get that job done. It’s obviously a team effort out there but it was a big situation and I’m glad I got through it.”
Before he could hand it over to Soriano, Clippard had to retire Tulowitzki.
“I was confident facing Tulo,” Clippard said, “and lucky enough, made my pitches to him and got him out.”
Clippard started the hard-hitting Rockies shortstop with three fastballs up and away.
“I wanted to get ahead of him with something hard and away,” Clippard explained, and he did, with Tulowitzki fouling off the first heater and taking the second for a called strike.
“I didn’t want to lead off with an off-speed pitch there. Just felt like he might have been sitting on something soft. Traditionally that’s what I started off the other guys with and so I wanted to just come right after him.”
Tulowitzki fouled off the third fastball Clippard threw him, staying alive for another pitch. If he was looking for a fastball on the fourth offering, however, it would explain how badly fooled he was by what Clippard had in mind.
“Threw three fastballs,” Clippard said. “Set up the splitty nice and I was able to bury it.”
The devastating pitch dove at the last second, falling out the zone and under Tulowitzki’s bat.
“He fed him fastballs,” Nats skipper Matt Williams said, “fastballs away. (Tulowitzki) is a great hitter and a great player and he got him swinging at the fastball and threw him a really good split or change - I don’t which one it was - but it went down, to strike him out. That was a good pitch.”
As Clippard described it afterward, the splitter is a pitch he just throws as hard as he can, counting on its diving movement rather than worrying about location. For a flyball pitcher who has made his living up in the zone, (his flyball percentage, 54.6 percent over the last three seasons, leads all NL relievers) the splitter is another dangerous weapon that has allowed him to continue to excel in his eighth-inning role.
After a rough start to the 2014 campaign that saw him allow runs in five of his first eleven outings, Clippard has allowed runs in just one of his last 29 appearances, posting a 1.32 ERA in 27 1/3 innings over that stretch, in which he’s held opposing hitters to a .188/.264/.219 line.
The only outing in which he’s allowed any runs to score came on June 17 in the nation’s capital, when the Houston Astros connected for five hits and four runs and knocked Clippard out after just 2/3 of an inning. Since then, he’s thrown seven scoreless allowing just three hits and walk while striking out 10.
Clippard is not the only National who’s been hot as of late.
“Last two weeks or so, two and a half weeks, we’ve been playing the baseball we expect to play,” he said after the 4-3 win over the Rockies on Wednesday night, which completed a sweep of the three-game set and gave the Nationals five straight wins.
“We’ve been pitching, timely hitting, playing defense, and this is who we are, so we’re pretty happy with how things are going right now.”
Patrick Reddington blogs about the Nationals for Federal Baseball and appears here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. Follow him on Twitter: @federalbaseball. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.