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Clippard blows save as Nationals fall to Brewers

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Photo - Washington Nationals relief pitcher Tyler Clippard delivers against the Milwaukee Brewers during the ninth inning of a baseball game at Nationals Park in Washington, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. The Brewers won 4-2. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Washington Nationals relief pitcher Tyler Clippard delivers against the Milwaukee Brewers during the ninth inning of a baseball game at Nationals Park in Washington, Friday, Sept. 21, 2012. The Brewers won 4-2. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Sports,MLB,Nationals,Brian McNally

It is the loneliest walk in baseball.

Earlier on Friday a struggling Tyler Clippard learned from manager Davey Johnson that he would now be sharing closer duties with his friend and teammate Drew Storen. Hours later, called upon to save a one-run lead in the ninth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers, he fell apart completely.

A leadoff bunt and a passed ball were eventually followed by an RBI single from Milwaukee slugger Ryan Braun and an RBI double by Aramis Ramirez. A wild pitch and an infield hit allowed another run to score and completed the nightmare ninth. Clippard trudged slowly off the mound when Johnson came to get him, and the Brewers' three runs in the inning lifted them to a dramatic 4-2 win.

It was the second time in three days that Clippard had been hit hard. He allowed a decisive homer to Matt Kemp in the ninth inning of a 7-6 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday. He has given up four earned runs and eight hits in his last four appearances. Given Storen's dominant effort against the middle of the Dodgers batting order on Thursday when he struck out the side it seems possible this co-closer arrangement won't last long at all.

"It's been really bad lately for me. Been trying to pinpoint what exactly it is as far as making as many mistakes as I've been making," Clippard said. "I've been feeling good physically, which makes it more frustrating from my perspective. Because when I feel physically 100 percent I should be getting outs."

In the end, Clippard's struggles cost starting pitcher Edwin Jackson the win. He had thrown eight strong innings, allowing one run and six hits with no walks and six strikeouts. Jackson left the game with his club ahead 2-1.

The Nats fell to 91-59 but didn't lose ground to second-place Atlanta in the National League East. The Braves dropped their own game at Philadelphia and the lead stays at 5 ? games with the magic number to clinch the division down to seven. Milwaukee (78-72), meanwhile, crawled to within 1? of the final NL wild-card spot after its win and a loss by the St. Louis Cardinals.

An early home run by Adam LaRoche stood up for almost the entire game. LaRoche put Washington ahead 2-0 in the first inning when he ripped a 1-1 pitch off the back of the Nats' bullpen in right field. Ryan Zimmerman, who had just reached on a broken-bat, two-out single, scored as well.

For LaRoche, it was his 31st homer of the season and he now has 96 RBIs. That is one shy of his career-best for homers - set with Atlanta in 2006 - and four shy of the 100 RBIs he produced with Arizona in 2010. But after that hit, Brewers starter Shaun Marcum retired 16 of the next 18 batters he faced.

Only a soft single by Michael Morse and an infield hit by Jackson produced any base runners for the Nats. Marcum had to leave after six innings when his pitch count rose to 94. But the sometimes shaky Milwaukee bullpen continued where he left off with three more scoreless frames.

The Brewers answered LaRoche in the top of the second when Jonathan Lucroy blasted a Jackson pitch down the line in left. It finally nestled in the final few rows of the outfield seats to cut the lead to 2-1. But Jackson retired the side in order in the third, fifth, sixth and seventh innings. In the fourth he allowed three hits, but center fielder Bryce Harper threw out Braun trying to score from second base and second baseman Danny Espinosa then started a fine 4-6-3 double play to end that threat.

"[Jackson] had that kind of postseason demeanor about him today," Johnson said

In the eighth, Jackson gave up a single to No. 8 batter Jean Segura. But he struck out pinch hitter Corey Hart with a nasty slider and catcher Jesus Flores fired to second to catch Segura trying to steal as the crowd erupted. It looked like it would be enough for the win. Instead, the Nats are searching for a way to get one of their best relievers back on track.

"[Clippard is] definitely a big key in our success. He's been doing great all year," Jackson said. "It was just one of those things where sometimes you have rough stretches. We've all had them at some point or another. You just have to keep your head up and stay strong. I told him that I definitely know how he feels."

bmcnally@washingtonexaminer.com

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