Given Clippard’s workload, how long can he keep it going?

VIERA, Fla. - The Nationals head back to the Orlando area today to face the Braves for the second time in three days. Only this time, they do so at night.

The two National League East rivals are scheduled to square off at 6:05 p.m. tonight, although heavy rain is in the forecast for today. We’ll have to see whether that affects Jordan Zimmermann’s second scheduled start of spring.

Ross Ohlendorf is set to follow Zimmermann to the mound and make his first spring training appearance today after dealing with tightness in his side and having one of the fingers on his throwing hand split open over the first three weeks of camp. It hasn’t been the smoothest of springs for the veteran righty.

Also scheduled to throw today against the Braves are left-handers Xavier Cedeno and Felipe Rivero, and right-handers Blake Treinen, Manny Delcarmen and Aaron Barrett.

clippard-throwing-hard-white-sidebar.jpgYesterday marked reliever Tyler Clippard’s first spring training appearance this year, and he worked a scoreless inning, pitching around a groundball double to start the frame.

We won’t see a ton of Clippard this spring, as he’s told pitching coach Steve McCatty and manager Matt Williams that he only feels he needs about 10 innings during Grapefruit League action in order to be ready for the start of the season. Clippard is expected to be given a heavy workload again this season as the Nats’ versatile, dependable set-up man, and neither he nor the Nationals feel that it’s necessary to have him expend too much energy in spring training when the games don’t matter.

The question that always seems to get brought up when people talk about Clippard and his regular season usage is how much longer he can continue to handle the type of innings that he has the last four years.

Since 2010, Clippard has appeared in a whopping 296 games for the Nationals, second-most of any pitcher in the majors in that span behind only the Rockies’ Matt Belisle. When it comes to innings pitched among relievers over the last four seasons, Clippard tops the list, throwing 323 innings. Outside of Belisle (who has worked 317 innings since 2010), no other reliever is within 43 total innings of Clippard in that four-year period.

Clippard has remained remarkably effective during this span, even as the innings have added up. He’s averaged a 2.73 ERA the last four seasons, striking out 10.4 batters per nine innings and putting up a 3.11-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio. Last season, Clippard allowed just 37 hits in 71 innings of work, a truly remarkable statistic.

But here’s that question again: how much longer can this continue, given the toll that all this work must put on Clippard’s right arm?

Clippard said after yesterday’s spring debut that his arm actually feels better than it has at this point in the year in a long time. He stays in great shape during the offseason and says he’s learned how to cater his workout plan to avoid things that might irritate his arm.

The workload hasn’t negatively affected Clippard to this point, although he’s aware that won’t always be the case.

“I know that I’m not going to be able to do it forever,” Clippard said. “That’s just the nature of the game, but I feel like I work pretty hard in the offseason to maintain what I’ve done in the past. I know what’s expected of me, and I want to be able to do that year in and year out. Because there’s nothing better than giving the team what they expect from you each and every year.

“Basically (it’s) consistency, and that’s what I try hard to give the Nationals. That’s what the offseason’s for, and continue to work hard during the year so I can maintain that.”

It could certainly be argued that Clippard is one of the more valuable members of the Nationals’ roster. He’s had minor blips along the way over the last four seasons, as any player does, but has remained remarkably consistent and has served as a valuable bridge to the ninth inning, holding tight leads or keeping the Nats in close games. His ability to close games, as well, gives Williams a nice fallback option should Rafael Soriano falter or suffer an injury.

The Nats need Clippard to stay healthy and effective, and so far, he’s shown no signs of slowing down. He and the Nats certainly hope that continues for a while.

Here’s today’s quote of the day, written atop the morning schedule sheet: “It’s not the will to win, but the will to prepare to win that makes the difference.”

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