They have criss-crossed through the first month of the Nationals’ surprising season like three celestial bodies, each leaving an indelible impression on a staff that, a year ago, didn’t have any of them.
But Livan Hernandez, Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps hadn’t all pitched on the same night, until Tuesday.
Once they did, the Nationals’ most formulaic way to win games finally clicked into place. Hernandez, Clippard and Capps, who have all reformed the pitching staff in different ways, lined up to anchor a 3-1 win over the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday night. Hernandez allowed one run in seven innings, winning for the third time in a four-start stretch that probably would have won him National League pitcher of the month honors had Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez not thrown a no-hitter. Then it was on to “Clip and Save,” the eighth-and-ninth inning combination that looks nothing like what the Nationals thought they’d have at the end of games. But Clippard worked a shutout eighth inning, and Capps converted his ninth save in nine tries.
If the Nationals can get a starter-reliever progression this automatic out of Stephen Strasburg and Drew Storen (who combined for their own 1-0 win at Class AA Harrisburg on Tuesday night), they’ll have done well.
“We couldn’t really be in that situation if Livo doesn’t go out and get the job done,” Clippard said. “Our starters are stepping up, and I’m just trying to contribute the best I can.”
Former general manager Jim Bowden acquired Clippard in a trade from the Yankees intending for the right-hander to be a starter. But he was bounced to the bullpen at the beginning of last season, arriving in the majors on June 25 after Bowden’s successor, Mike Rizzo, kept him in the minors for a half-season to learn the intricacies of using his four-pitch repertoire in relief.
In the final three months of the season, there were few relievers in the Nationals’ bullpen more consistent than Clippard, and he came into 2010 with a chance to be a key part of Washington’s late-inning arsenal. But he was pegged as a right-handed version of a left-handed specialist, with his stellar changeup allowing him to stifle left-handers but also threatening to pigeonhole him.
A month into the season, he’s been a revelation in the setup role, with a deceptive delivery that’s allowed him to miss bats at almost twice the league-average rate and the ability to work multiple innings.
“I’m just trying to keep the hitters off-balance as much as possible,” Clippard said. “Just give myself as much room for error as possible, and it’s worked out.”
Then there’s Capps, who signed with the Nationals after his aggressive mentality led to a tough-luck 2009 season and a decision by the Pirates to non-tender the right-hander. He’s 9-for-9 in save situations, converting another one on Tuesday.
And Hernandez, who signed a minor-league deal with the Nationals in February and came aboard as nothing more than an innings-eater who could be lifted out of the rotation when Strasburg was ready, has been the staff ace the first month of the season.
His seven-inning, one-run performance was his fourth outing of seven innings or more this season. It was vintage Livo, full of 86-mph fastballs, 64-mph curveballs and pitches that could smudge the head of a pin. Working with catcher Ivan Rodriguez, Hernandez has been nothing short of masterful, and he was again on Tuesday.
“Sometimes we talk, sometimes I get a sign from the mound and sometimes we talk in Spanish,” Hernandez said. “It’s something we’ve got to do, and it made the game better.”
Whether the trio keeps it going throughout the season remains to be seen. But there’s a sentiment in the Nationals organization that this whole season can be a surprise if the team stays around .500 until June, when reinforcements like Strasburg, Storen, Chien-Ming Wang and Ross Detwiler arrive.
The reinforcements might not be as necessary, though, as was once thought. At least, not to replace any of the pitchers who helped the Nationals win on Tuesday.
“We can’t draw it up any better than that, to go seven, one and one with your pitchers,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “We’ll just keep riding them and see how far we go with them.”