Clippard expanding the repertoire, finding plenty of success

Repeating a stat I dropped last night, the Nationals have now won two in a row and still have two more games against a Padres team that has lost seven straight by a collective score of 39-12.

As if that didn't look good enough for the home team, the Nats will send their two top pitchers this season - Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg - to the mound in these next two games.

The Braves, meanwhile, have lost three in a row. That leaves the Nats' deficit in the National League East at five games entering play this weekend. The division deficit hasn't been less than five games since May 31.

We've talked countless times this season about how the Nationals have yet to get some momentum going, how they've failed to string together a handful of wins and go on a run. Is this maybe their chance? Maybe? Bueller?

It might go largely unnoticed around the league because he isn't in the closer's role and eighth-inning guys have a hard time getting national recognition, but Tyler Clippard is having another monster season for the Nationals.

Clippard has been scored upon in just six of his 37 appearances, has allowed just one run in his last 13 outings, and has only two multi-run appearances on his player card all season. After another scoreless inning yesterday, when he struck out two of the three hitters he faced, Clippard's ERA sits at an impressive 2.21.

"He's been outstanding," manager Davey Johnson said. "He did a great job closing last year, he's been outstanding setting up. It's almost a given."

Clippard is an intelligent, thoughtful player, and he says a key for him this season has been realizing what he does well and sticking to that. Having a good sense of self has allowed Clippard to understand his strengths and weaknesses as a pitcher, and he's set up a gameplan that's been very effective for him this year.

"I have to pitch with my fastball and everything else is kind of off of that pitch, but I think, more importantly, mixing in not just my changeup, but my breaking pitches, and just being a pitcher, not a thrower," Clippard said. "I think a lot of guys in relief become throwers over time because that's the scenario that you're in. You're one inning, you're max-effort and you just have to get three outs.

"I've really had to work hard at staying within myself in the sense of pitching instead of throwing, and doing that and making a conscious effort to do that has helped."

You often hear Johnson talking about how he wants his relievers to "pitch" and not just "throw," but that's not always easy. It can be tempting for relievers to go out and try and overpower everyone and rack up strikeouts, but Clippard has focused on utilizing his entire repertoire this season. That's something that he learned he needed to improve last season, when he felt he was focusing too much on just his fastball and changeup.

"There's times when you're reluctant to throw certain pitches, especially when you only have one inning," Clippard said. "And you don't really have time to get a feel for 'em. But at the end of the day, those are the situations where you need to make yourself do that because you're gonna need those pitches further on down the road. The more you don't throw them, the more you're not gonna get a feel for 'em.

"It's definitely a Catch-22, and this year, I've made myself pitch a little bit more than last year because I think that's what hurt me a little bit later on in the year. I completely got away from all my breaking pitches and the at-bats for hitters got more comfortable for them. And I don't really want to see myself fall back into that again, because I lost the closer's job because of that. So if I can stick to my gameplan like I always have, I think I can do well for a long time."

The numbers back up what Clippard is saying. Last season, Clippard only threw fastballs 52 percent of the time, but he threw 37 percent changeups, far and away a career high. This season, Clippard has gotten back to relying more on his fastball (thrown 59 percent of the time) while backing off the changeup a bit (33 percent of the time). He's thrown five percent curveballs, up from two percent last season, and has thrown his cutter four percent of the time.

Clippard said he realized down the stretch last season that he was limiting himself in terms of pitch-selection and not using his entire repertoire, but he couldn't do anything about it at that point.

"I was already so far down the wormhole, so to speak, it was really tough to get myself back into doing what I had always done," Clippard said. "So this offseason, I really wanted to approach this year and I got back to really who I was, and that was kinda the end of the story.

"I didn't have to change anything, I just had to get back to who I was. And doing that this year has helped. It's not always going to be great, but for the most part, if I stick to who I am, it's going to be good."

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