PHILADELPHIA - Three down, three to go.
The Nationals are half-way through their final road trip of the season, and after a few days in Philly, it's off to St. Louis for three games against a Cardinals team trying to lock up the NL's final Wild Card spot.
The earliest the Nationals can now clinch the division is Saturday. You won't find anyone in the clubhouse looking past tonight's game, but after what the Nats accomplished in Philadelphia, they've set themselves up to close this thing out in the coming days if they can take care of business.
The last two days were big from a team perspective. The Nationals picked up a couple big wins over the scrappy Phillies and cut their magic number from five down to three with six games remaining. That's all good stuff. On top of that, however, the Nats saw signs that two slumping players, guys who will be crucial in the postseason, are starting to come around.
Tyler Clippard had allowed at least one run in his last four outings and five of his last six entering last night's game. His ERA had jumped from 2.69 to 3.75 in the span of just 10 appearances, and his batting average against in that time was .422.
Last night, however, Clippard pitched a perfect eighth inning, striking out two and looking much more like the guy who we saw mow hitters down at a consistent clip (no pun intended) earlier this summer.
Asked after the game if he felt like he'd turned a corner with the performance, Clippard nodded in the affirmative.
"I feel good," he said.
The key last night, according to the right-hander, was that he was able to locate his fastball down in the zone. Clippard had been working with pitching coach Steve McCatty on various mechanical adjustments during his rough patch, and after a bit of tinkering, he thinks he's back on track.
"I just got out of whack a little while there," Clippard said. "It's not that I didn't really feel like myself, I think it just came down to not executing. I was talking to Cat, I can look back on those outings and they kind of come back to just one or two pitches, and most of the time they were fastballs right down the middle, and you're not going to have success, especially in fastball counts. So it's kind of just getting that confidence back, and I think tonight helped me do that."
"I'm not too worried at this point in the season about my numbers or anything like that," Clippard added. "I just want to get going for the playoffs, get right for that. Time it up right so I can go on a good stretch here."
While Clippard was putting it back together on the mound, Michael Morse was busy demolishing baseballs at the plate. Morse crushed two homers last night, displaying the power we saw last season and briefly earlier this year before a left wrist injury and, to a lesser extent, right hand injury began limiting his effectiveness.
"I feel pretty good," Morse said. "Last couple days we've been doing a lot of treatment for my wrist and stuff, and it's been holding up. It feels good. ... It's more stable. I guess that's the word I can say. Which makes it more, I guess, strong, back to normal. I don't have to think about it, which is good."
Just to show how much Morse's power had been zapped by his wrist injury, his homer total last night matched the number of longballs he had hit in his previous 29 games combined.
Manager Davey Johnson said he felt Morse looked much more like himself during Wednesday's batting practice, that he was getting the bat head out and pulling the ball. Morse agreed, saying he's felt much better recently. Of course, with six games left in the regular season and the playoffs on the horizon, now would be the time for Morse to find a groove.
"It would be perfect," Morse said. "This is perfect timing right now."
The Nats' bullpen is so much more effective when Clippard can be counted on to lock down the eighth inning, and the lineup has a completely different feel and power potential when Morse is in a zone and hitting the ball with authority. The Nats will need these two in a big way, so as Morse says, the timing is perfect for them to start feeling "right" again.