Clippard thrives in emotional return to Nats Park

The restaurants and condos and everything else that has sprung up around Nationals Park since 2014 felt unfamiliar to Tyler Clippard, who never got to enjoy the benefits of a reinvigorated Navy Yard during his first stint with the Nationals.

Once he jogged in from the home bullpen Thursday night to cheers from an appreciative fan base that remembers what he meant to this organization and found himself on the mound again, that’s when everything seemed right with the world.

“It felt like I was home,” Clippard said. “It was a familiar feeling, for sure. Having the curly W on me gives me a lot of confidence, for whatever reason. I just feel good out there. That’s how I felt today. It was a lot of fun.”

It certainly helps when you also pitch two scoreless innings, which is exactly what the 37-year-old did in his 415th career appearance for the Nationals, but his first in eight seasons. After bouncing around between eight different franchises since 2015, Clippard rejoined the Nationals this spring on a minor league contract, then spent the last three months making his case at Triple-A Rochester to be called up.

The call finally came Wednesday, when Clippard made the long drive to D.C. and arrived in time for the nightcap of a split doubleheader against the Mariners, having spent much of that time reminiscing about the path that led him back here.

“I’m glad it worked out the way it did,” he said. “I’m glad I’m here. I couldn’t be happier. I was on the drive in yesterday, just had six hours to reflect on a nice career. But the most memorable moments of that career were here. And stepping into the stadium again with the curly W, it gets me a little bit, man. It’s emotional for me. I’m happy. This is gonna be a fun few months.”

Many among the crowd of 25,577 stood and applauded as Clippard came jogging in from the bullpen for the top of the eighth Thursday night, the familiar strains of The Fugees’ “Ready or Not” blaring over the PA system for the first time in eight years. Perhaps feeling the butterflies a bit more than usual, the right-hander proceeded to throw several of his warmup pitches everywhere but in the vicinity of the strike zone.

But no matter, because once the top of the eighth began, he got down to business, retiring the side on 10 pitches and striking out Ronald Acuña Jr. with one of the high changeups that has defined his long and successful career despite the unconventionality of that pitch.

“Once those hitters are in the box, you have no choice but to lock it in, or your neck’s going to be hurting,” he said. “That’s what I was able to do.”

Clippard was so efficient and so effective, he returned to the mound for the top of the ninth. Though he allowed a soft single to Austin Riley, he retired the other three batters he faced and finished with two scoreless innings on 24 pitches thanks to a wide-ranging repertoire that had Atlanta’s hitters befuddled.

“What I know about Clippard is he’s going to compete,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I’ve seen him from the other side for a very long time. Another guy who worked really hard to get back up here, and he had a great outing for us today.”

It remains to be seen what the rest of the season has in store for Clippard. He won’t be pitching in a pennant race, but that doesn’t seem to matter to him right now. His 16th big league season is taking place in the ballpark where he spent the best seven seasons of his career. That’s reason enough to celebrate.

“I mean, it all started here, man,” he said. “A lot of good memories.”

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