If the biggest difference between the 2009 Nationals and the 2010 Nationals is the success of their bullpen - particularly at the end of the game - then the reason Saturday's 10-5 loss to the Giants looked so much like a 2009 game was because of the bullpen falling apart, particularly Tyler Clippard.
Clippard's struggles have been ongoing since that series in Baltimore, where he gave up three runs in 1 1/3 innings as the Orioles came back from a 6-0 deficit to beat the Nationals on June 25. Including that game, Clippard has allowed 11 runs in his last six innings, and when he came in with a one-run lead in the seventh inning on Saturday, he allowed four runs on two hits and two walks, retiring just one batter and leaving the game in tatters.
He's a flyball pitcher, which has always doubters a little cause for concern, even as Clippard became one of the best setup men in the National League early this year. But those concerns seem to be valid now; Clippard's fastball, which usually clocks in around 93 mph, has been around 95-96 mph the last few games. With the extra speed, it's lost much of its movement, and hitters have made Clippard pay. His changeup - his most effective weapon against lefties - also isn't working; Clippard has been far tougher on righties (a .187 average heading into Saturday) than lefties (.273).
"The ball's up a little more, the changeup is not consistently down, and he's just not making pitches," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "Sometimes when you're struggling, you tend to try and go harder, and that's not what you want to do. You want to just relax and make your pitches. He might be trying a little too hard."
So what's the fix? The Nationals hope to avoid using Clippard on Sunday, and could put him in some lower-pressure situations for now. The luxury they have is Drew Storen, who's been tremendous since coming to the majors in May and can take over the setup role for now. But Clippard, at his best, adds another dimension to the Nationals' bullpen; his changeup makes him tough on lefties when he's keeping it down in the zone, and his deceptive delivery allows him to miss bats.
But neither of those things are there right now.
McCatty said he didn't think Clippard, who left without talking to reporters, had been overworked, pointing to the velocity as evidence he's still feeling fresh enough.
"I was sitting there thinking about that tonight, and I knew I was going to hear something about it," McCatty said. "But if the workload were too much, I don't think his velocity would be 94, 95, like I've seen. When you're struggling, you want to do more. And in baseball, that's not the case. You've just got to stay within yourself, and ride out the storm."
He'll apparently get some time to figure things out, and the Nationals have the bullpen depth to fill Clippard's role effectively for now. But their bullpen probably isn't elite unless they get him back to where he can be. That's especially true if they wind up trading Matt Capps, taking some more depth out of the bullpen.
We'll see how soon Clippard can figure it out in the second half.
"He is probably out there feeling good warming up, feeling good with his stuff. Then he is out there on the mound feeling good," reliever Doug Slaten said. "But if you are just a click off or a hair off sometimes, not finishing or following through on pitches, we all go through it. It is a really fine line sometimes."