If there had been one thing that had held the Nationals together during a 17-14 start where they’d gotten good starting pitching at times, played competent defense most nights and rarely hit to their capabilities, it’s the combination of Tyler Clippard and Matt Capps.
The former-starter-turned-reliever happened into the setup role this season, after Brian Bruney couldn’t handle the job and Clippard’s Gumby windup kept producing strikeouts. And Capps, whom the Nationals signed in December after the Pirates non-tendered him in the wake of an unsightly 2009 performance, entered Monday’s game against the Mets 13-for-13 in save situations.
The two have become one of the biggest reasons for the Nationals’ surprising start, but neither is a renewable resource. Manager Jim Riggleman knew he needed to give his late-inning pair a night off on Monday, even if the Nationals found themselves in another one-run game after winning seven of their first 10 of those this year.
They did, and Riggleman turned to every one of his relievers but Clippard and Capps. In other words, he put a close game in the hands of a group that’s proved itself far too susceptible to failure in those situations.
But somehow - and often, in spite of some mistakes - the Nationals survived. And as a result, they’re four games above .500 for the first time since Sept. 2005.
The Nationals beat the Mets 3-2 on Monday night, running their record to 18-14 - which includes eight one-run wins - while managing to give Clippard and Capps a night off. It’s far too early to suggest they’ve found the bullpen depth to spell “Clip and Save,” but for one night, they were able to get by without them.
Washington’s relievers allowed two runs, one after Doug Slaten was slow to cover first in the seventh inning and one on Angel Pagan’s homer off Miguel Batista in the ninth. And Bruney was their only reliever not to give up a hit. But none of the Nationals’ relievers walked a batter, and Batista - who’s been maligned as a long reliever - managed to get the save.
“I was pretty comfortable with it. I felt like, if we’re going to get beat, we’re going to get beat throwing strikes,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “He was the guy I was most comfortable with, he was the guy I felt was going to give us the best professional effort.”
It’s tough to call the performance something to build on, because there were still enough moments where the Mets had a chance to take the lead with one more big hit. Sean Burnett again allowed a base hit to the only batter he faced, and Slaten, who got out of the sixth inning on one pitch when Ike Davis lined into a double play, allowed three hits in the seventh.
Even Bruney, who’d walked 18 batters in 15 innings before Monday, had issues. He threw one wild pitch that moved two inherited runners to second and third base in the eighth.
If they can find just one serviceable reliever to complement Clippard and Capps, though, it would completely change the Nationals’ bullpen. That might be Walker, who’s shown an ability to strike batters out at key moments and did it again on Monday with a sharp curveball that froze Jose Reyes in the seventh - and then got both him and manager Jerry Manuel ejected for arguing home-plate umpire Las Diaz’s call that the pitch clipped the outside corner of the plate.
Walker has now struck out 19 batters in 17 innings, and has shown some signs of being the pitcher the Nationals signed in the offseason. Whether it’s him, Bruney or somebody else that can take some heat off Clippard and Capps, the Nationals will be a different team.
Maybe Monday night was a step in that direction. Maybe it was an aberration. But it at least validated Riggleman’s decision to see what would happen without Clippard and Capps, and gave the Nationals hope that repeating the choice might work once in a while.