Nursing a 3-1 lead, the Washington Nationals sent Tyler Clippard to the mound in the bottom of the 9th inning Saturday night in Baltimore. Most other major league teams, if not all, would feel more than a little nervous trotting out their fourth choice as closer.
But it's a different situation for the upstart Nats, who have been able to feel confident lately in save situations. True to form, Clippard set down the Orioles 1-2-3, picking up the save. In fact, he made it look relatively easy, mixing pitches beautifully, fooling the O's batters, forcing weak swings.
It's become a usual occurrence -- Clippard is now a perfect 12-for-12 in save opportunities since getting his chance to take over the closer role. It's one of the more surprising contributions to the Nationals' continuing hold on first place in the NL East, especially with the team's inconsistent offense and an inordinate number of injuries to key players.
The bespectacled reliever stepped up his game when needed, and while it wouldn't be fair to say that Clippard was a desperate choice for the Nats, he was the team's fourth option. Injuries sidelined the first two options at closer -- young star Drew Storen and veteran insurance plan Brad Lidge. Henry Rodriguez was Plan C, but suffered through a series of meltdowns after showing some promise. It's been nothing but success for Clippard ever since, with 12 saves, a 1.95 ERA and 0.90 WHIP -- he did have one blown save early in the season before assuming the closer role.
While an intriguing story, it doesn't come as a complete surprise. In 2011, Clippard had a 1.83 ERA for the season, with 104 Ks in 88 innings. The season included his first selection to the All-Star Game as a set-up reliever, and he even ended up getting the win.
Clippard has shown no signs of slowing down as a closer, even if the role is temporary. But the return of Drew Storen from the DL is no longer far away. And so the buzz has begun -- do the Nationals have a controversy at closer? The answer, of course, is "no," as no team would complain at having too many good arms in a bullpen.
In the meantime, Clippard is proving that he's more than one of the best set-up men in baseball, and he's ready to take on a larger role. However the Nats juggle their bullpen when Storen returns, Clippard's future looks bright.
KW Rosenfeld is a lifelong baseball fan who visited every major league ballpark in the summer of 1991. A longtime resident of Northern Virginia, he's still thankful that baseball has returned to D.C.