Bullpen continues to come up big

Tyler Clippard standing.JPGThe Nats 2010 bullpen is becoming a well-oiled machine. It is pretty easy to see they are having fun too. Just watch them warm up once.

Here is a brief recap of the bullpen pitchers warming up on Tuesday. The bullpen pitchers are a team within a team and they are relegated to the right field corner when they warm up, right next to the spot they occupy during the game.

They say no man is an island, but the bullpen pitchers are basically on an island. They are isolated from the rest of the team during the game so it only makes sense to do it during practice too.

They don’t have to worry about BP or taking ground balls, aside from the occasional PFP (pitcher field position) drills. Left alone, they have created other clever ways to warm up. On Tuesday, they pretended they were star NFL receivers and ran deep post-corner and fly routes to the corner of the imaginary end zone, catching high fly balls and always making sure their toes were inbounds.

The next drill was a little more practical than running routes. They simulated hitters. In this one instance: Tyler Clippard pitched, Brian Bruney caught, Sean Burnett batted with his glove and Matt Capps provided commentary and called balls and strikes.

Bruney didn’t have to move his glove once and Capps did his best strike three punch out after each pitch. 

“We’re just having a good time,” Burnett said. “But at the same time, when I am in the box, it lets him visualize the hitter. So, in other words, you’re having a good time, but you’re also working on things.”

Burnett never swung his glove; he knew he never had a chance. Then again, not many batters do.

“I could have got a hit off him because I knew what was coming,” Burnett said with a big smile. “But no, not otherwise. I would probably have a really hard time.”

Clippard then switched spots with Bruney and he quickly revealed why he is a pitcher and not a catcher.

Clippard has been lights outs so far this season. He struck out 7 batters in 3.0 innings against the Mets on April 10. He is 3-0 with a 0.77 ERA and leads NL relievers with 11.2 innings pitched.

You have to be a different breed to be a member of the bullpen. You have to be ready to pitch every day and you have to flip that so called “switch” like a light at times. It helps to have a comedian too–it keeps things loose while watching a game a mile from the action.

“We got a great group of guys,” Burnett said. “We are a bunch of guys that get along and like to have a good time. You’ve got to be a little different in the bullpen or else it gets boring down there. But guys like Tyler Walker and stuff keep it real loose and make us laugh and smile. We have a good time. I think you have to be a close group of guys that help each other out and then battle through things.”

One of the Nats main priorities entering the offseason was revamping the bullpen. They did just that and it has paid immediate dividends.

Last year, the bullpen was a ticking time bomb that seemed to explode every outing. Last April, the bullpen went 0-8 with a 5.40 ERA (73.1 IP/ 44 ER) and blew seven of the ten save opportunities, three of which were in consecutive games against the Marlins in the ninth inning.

This year it is a different story. The bullpen was bolstered during the offseason and only Clippard and Burnett remain from the 2009 season.

We have a veteran group of guys,” Burnett said. “We have guys that have been relievers for awhile and have Big League experience. We have guys who go in there and throw strikes. I think that’s the biggest thing–that guys are going in and throwing strikes.”

The bullpen has been worked vigorously at times as some of the Nationals starters have struggled to hit their spots. It has put them  into some interesting predicaments this season–pitching 9.0 innings on Sunday and 7.0 innings on Tuesday–but they have thus far been able to weather the storm.

The long outings have slightly inflated their ERA to eighth in the NL. They are 4-2 with 4.75 ERA (60.2 IP/ 32 ER) and 7-for-8 in save opportunities. The key stat is Matt Capps is 7-for-7 in save opportunities in the ninth.

Looked at a slightly different way–when the Nats are close, ahead or the starter pitched at least five innings–the bullpen is 4-0 with a 1.86 ERA (19.1 IP/ 4 ER) with 20 strikeouts and a .224 BAA.

The bullpen has come up big in big games, and that has been the difference between 8-7 and 4-11.

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