Nationals' Clippard trying to shake it off

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Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

Closer's struggles starting to be a concern

The bullpen has been a strength of the Nationals ever since general manager Mike Rizzo blew the whole thing up multiple times early in the 2009 season.

A huge part of that turnaround was Tyler Clippard, the goggles-wearing master of the change-up who was promoted from Triple-A Syracuse just before the All-Star break that year and quickly became one of the best setup men in baseball.

For the first time since his return to the majors as a reliever -- Clippard was once a starting pitcher in the New York Yankees' system -- he is facing a crisis after blowing games last week against the Los Angeles Dodgers and Milwaukee Brewers. Suddenly, the man who was elevated to closer with friend and teammate Drew Storen out following elbow surgery is now considered the co-closer by his manager, Davey Johnson.

"That's the beauty of this game. You're constantly learning about yourself, and that's something that's going on with me right now," Clippard said after Friday's game against Milwaukee in which a 2-1 lead slipped away in the ninth inning. "I'm trying to figure it out. I'm searching right now. We'll get it figured out. I'm not too worried about it. I'm still confident as heck."

Storen, who saved 43 games last year, looks back to his old form after a roller-coaster July and August as he returned from his elbow surgery. He was dominant against the Dodgers on Sept. 20, striking out the heart of the order. He also pitched the ninth inning of Monday's win over Milwaukee with Clippard handling the eighth for the first time since May 20.

Washington's bullpen has never been about job titles. Storen himself has said that a decent number of his saves in 2011 were a direct result of Clippard pitching out of trouble in the eighth inning first.

"You don't have to put a name on it all the time," Johnson said after Monday's game. "You guys always want to have a name on everything. The guy that goes out there is the closer that day. How's that?"

Johnson is also working hard to salvage the confidence of a pitcher he needs in the postseason. He specifically said Clippard would be in play as a closer against the Phillies this week because he's so strong against left-handed batters and Philadelphia has some good ones. Much like its deep lineup, Washington's bullpen works because it doesn't really have a weak link.

The Cincinnati Reds lead the majors with a bullpen ERA of 2.61. The Atlanta Braves are second in the National League and third overall at 2.89. Both teams have relievers in Aroldis Chapman (Reds) and Cole Kimbrel (Braves) in the midst of exceptional seasons as closers. The Nats ranked 10th in bullpen ERA entering play Wednesday, but six of the seven primary arms that have been around all summer are at 3.02 or lower. Clippard is actually the worst (3.67), and his stood at 2.69 just nine appearances ago.

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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