NEW YORK - How did this happen?
How did Tyler Clippard, a one-time top starting prospect who washed his way through the Yankees’ system before doing the same with the Nationals, morph himself first into one of baseball’s most unlikely setup men before making himself so indispensable that the Nationals can’t wait until the eighth to use him any more?
Where did the gangly 26-year-old, with the goofy gait that’s lead teammates to call him Geoffrey (like the Toys R Us giraffe) and the oversized prescription glasses, find it in him to take those things and fashion a throwing motion so awkward, he wouldn’t be the same pitcher if he just looked a little more normal?
It’s something of a happy accident for Clippard and the Nationals, but seven games into the 2011 season, it’s become increasingly clear that he’s stumbled upon a formula that works.
In all three of the Nationals’ wins this year, Clippard has worked at least an inning. He still has a 0.00 ERA. On Thursday night, the Nationals turned to him with runners on second and third and none out - in other words, when they needed their pitcher most likely not to put the ball in play. He responded with three strikeouts in two innings, allowing a RBI groundout but keeping the game tied. On Friday night, the setting was almost as dire: runners on second and third with one out and the New York Mets threatening to steal back the lead in their home opener.
Within nine pitches, the rally was dead.
“A lot of hitters have that changeup in the back of their mind,” catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. “When you have that pitch on you, you’re going to get a lot of guys out with the fastball or changeup or whatever. He’s got four good pitches he can use, and he can use all four when he wants to.”
Anyone who’s seen Clippard’s delivery knows how unusual, even comical, he can look coming to the plate. But he wouldn’t be the same pitcher if he threw any other way.
He is all arms and legs as he rears back, his glove arm coming all the way to his head as he drops the ball back even with his right knee. The glove acts almost as a screen for the ball when he comes forward, and though his fastball only tops out around 93 mph, his big stride and arm action make it seem more like 96. He’s at his best when he can get hitters swinging at his high fastball.
And then there’s his changeup, which manager Jim Riggleman said almost makes Clippard like another left-hander. He’s allowed lefties to hit .201 against him in his career; righties have hit .225.
That package, combined with two breaking balls, makes Clippard one of the toughest relievers to adjust to in the National League. He’s gotten swinging strikes an absurd 13.8 percent of the time the last two years; the NL average was 8.6 percent. He was at 21.8 percent before Friday, when three of his seven strikes came on swings and misses.
Clippard’s first batter was Jose Reyes, who struck out just 63 times last year and only had two strikeouts in 29 at-bats this season. Reyes missed a changeup, fouled off two fastballs, took a changeup for a ball and flailed at another change for strike three.
“The way he pitched Reyes was unbelievable,” Rodriguez said. “Those two or three changeups we threw to him were just nasty.”
Last year, the right-hander’s numbers got progressively better the less rest he had, and that led to him throwing 91 innings in 78 games last year. He allowed 18 of 46 inherited runners to score last year, struggling enough that he led the team with 11 wins, many of those coming after he’d blown a lead and the Nationals came back. But this year, he’s only let two of 11 score.
All those things can present the image that Clippard’s invincible, though he proved last year he’s not. Riggleman has asked him to throw seven innings in the season’s first seven games, and as good as he’s been with little rest, few relievers ever withstand that much work without breaking down.
“It is (tough not to use him), because he’s like another left-hander,” Riggleman said. “When you see those parts of the lineup coming up, and I’ve already used (Doug) Slaten, and we’re saving Burnie (Sean Burnett) for the ninth, it’s kind of like having another left-hander, and he gets right-handers out. It’s very tempting, but fortunately, (Todd) Coffey has come on the scene and really pitched good for us.”
The Nationals can pledge themselves to be restrained, but they lack a dominant starting pitcher, and their offense isn’t good enough to blow many games open. Those are the situations that create situations like the last two days, when a game stays close into the late innings and the Nationals can’t turn anywhere else.
Somehow, the kid with the awkward throwing motion has become the safest place the Nationals can turn.
“It’s good,” Clippard said. “That’s been my role over the last two years here. I know what I’m expected to do. I’m just trying to fill that role and do my job.”