PHOENIX - The first conversation came on the drive from Viera, Fla., to Syracuse, N.Y., at the end of spring training in 2009. On the last day of camp, Tyler Clippard got the news that his time as a starting pitcher - what he'd been for his entire career - was probably over. The Nationals had decided to make the onetime prospect a reliever, and he had 20 hours of solitude along Interstate-95 to think about what that meant.
So Clippard called his father, Bob, and told him the news.
"That was an interesting time," Clippard said. "He put it in perspective and said, 'Hey, you've still got a uniform on. You're in Triple-A. You're on the 40-man roster. You've got a lot of good things going for you. Don't let this little hiccup stop you.' As that 20-hour car ride progressed, I started feeling a lot better about it. And by the time I got to Syracuse, I was itching and ready to go. I was hungry again."
The second phone call - or series of phone calls - came a couple months later, as the Nationals' bullpen was hemorrhaging runs, wins and relievers. The team had the worst bullpen in baseball the first two months of the 2009 season, and tried 14 different relievers in its attempt to piece together a group that could hold a lead. It seemed they'd tried everyone but Clippard, who was tearing through hitters in the minors.
"I can remember having conversations with my agent (Casey Close) on a daily basis about, 'What's going on here? I'm better than half those guys,' " Clippard said. "But you know what? I think those are healthy conversations, and (general manager Mike) Rizzo handled it perfectly. By the time I actually got the call, I was sure I was ready, he was sure I was ready, the organization knew. I was a new bullpen guy, so there was a development process there to be had."
That winding road, from Yankees and Nationals prospect to goofy-looking reliever to dominant setup man, will reach a pinnacle tomorrow night, when Clippard is introduced at Chase Field as a member of the National League All-Star team. He's the second Nationals reliever in as many years to make it as a first time All-Star, but when teammate (and roommate) Drew Storen could have also been selected, NL manager Bruce Bochy went with Clippard.
"A guy like Clippard, what he's done there (in Washington) ... these guys are out there as much as the closer and they have to save the game, too," Bochy said.
With his gangly stride and his long-limbed delivery that has led teammates to dub him "Geoffrey" (like the Toys 'R' Us giraffe), Clippard has become one of the most effective setup men in the National League. He's struck out 63 batters in 51 1/3 innings this season, allowing just six of 32 inherited runners to score, and hitters are batting just .151 against him. When the Nationals are in a tough situation and need a strikeout, it's Clippard they call.
But to get to that point, Clippard first had to accept the role.
"Initially, it was a very tough thing," Clippard said. "Moving to the bullpen was definitely taking a step backward in my mind, initially. However, it helped me in the long run."
His family and his girlfriend will be at Chase Field tomorrow night to see the culmination of that process. And last night, after he'd arrived in Phoenix on a flight with the Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki, Clippard had a chance to reflect on the whole ride with the man who gave him a pep talk on that drive from Syracuse.
"My dad and I got to sit down and talk about how this all came about," Clippard said. "That was really cool and special."