Photo by Rachel Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Tyler Clippard's ERA has more than doubled in less than three weeks.
By all accounts, Tyler Clippard is just as upset with himself as all of you are with him. Since he departed the Nationals' clubhouse before reporters entered following tonight's 10-5 loss to the Giants, we can't say that with 100 percent certainty. But those who know Clippard best know how much this recent rough stretch is weighing on him.
"It's killing him," teammate Matt Capps said. "It's killing all of us to see what he's going through. It's just one of those things everybody goes through during the course of the year. Billy Wagner's been through it. Mariano Rivera's been through it. It's where you find out what you're made of."
"It" is a stretch of seven games over the last 16 days that has turned Clippard's once-dominant season into cause for real concern.
The numbers aren't pretty: 13 runs (11 earned) and 15 hits allowed in six innings. Opponents are hitting .500 against him. Of the 39 batters he's faced, 22 have reached base. And the worst stat of all: an 0-3 record.
"Tyler's just struggling," manager Jim Riggleman said. "I don't really know what else to say. He's struggling."
There's no debating that. It was on display for 23,977 to see tonight, when Clippard entered in the seventh inning to protect a 5-4 lead and after striking out the first man he faced proceeded to allow the next four to reach safely via a home run, two walks and a single.
There's little sense analyzing what went wrong -- in a nutshell, Clippard's pitches are all up in the zone too much. The larger issue is what to do now.
Clippard has already lost his stranglehold on the eighth-inning role, ceding that to Drew Storen. Riggleman suggested he might get bumped even farther, perhaps making his next appearance in the sixth inning.
The timing of this slump -- right before the All-Star break -- could be seen as either a good thing or a bad thing. Clippard probably won't pitch in tomorrow's first-half finale, so he'll get at least five days off before having another chance to appear in a game. Of course, that's five days to sit around and stew over things, which could make matters worse.
"It would be great if it wasn't the break and we could get him right back in there," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "A lot of times, the best thing you can do for a guy that's struggling is throw him back the next day."
It's easy to attribute Clippard's struggles to his massive work load over the last three months. At one point, he was on pace to pitch in more than 100 games, and though he's backed off some in the last month, he still leads the Nats' bullpen with 44 appearances and 51 2/3 innings.
The club's coaching staff, though, doesn't believe that's the problem. His velocity isn't suffering at all. If anything, it's up a couple of notches into the mid-90s, which makes an arm injury unlikely.
"If the workload was too much, I don't think his velocity would be 94-95 like I've seen," McCatty said.
The Nationals would prefer Clippard ease off the gas pedal a bit.
"Even though you throw harder, it doesn't make things better," McCatty said. "There's an area where you pitch better at. Because you're not overthrowing, you're locating your pitches better, it seems like the ball will jump out of your hand. But when you tend to power up when you're struggling, you open up, you leave the ball up and make some hittable pitches."
This represents the first real test of Clippard's brief career as a big-league reliever. He's been incredibly successful since taking on this role last summer, almost too successful to believe.
How he responds to this adversity might very well determine how he'll be used in the future. Is he a potential closer-in-waiting if Capps gets traded? Or is he destined to toil in obscurity as a middle man?
Based on what they've seen, the Nationals remain convinced Clippard is a big part of this team's immediate and long-term success.
"He's just got to buckle down, get back to what made him so successful early," Capps said. "It'll work out for him. He's got too good of stuff for it not to."