With all the success that the Nationals starting rotation has enjoyed, it can be easy to overlook how good the bullpen has been as well. Despite injuries to Brad Lidge, Henry Rodriguez and Ryan Mattheus – not to mention last year’s closer Drew Storen who has yet to throw a pitch in 2012 – the Nationals relief corps has been a quiet strength of this team. Sure, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez have earned their eight wins apiece heading into this weekend’s series against the Yankees. But the bullpen arms have protected those leads, far more often than not.
Tyler Clippard, who is featured on the cover of this homestand’s Inside Pitch, has been lights out since moving to the back of the bullpen. Not only has he saved nine straight opportunities, in 8.1 scoreless innings pitched over that span, he has allowed just one hit and three walks while striking out 11 batters. His most impressive stretch came when he saved three consecutive games against the Red Sox at Fenway Park last weekend.
But the story does not end with Clippard. Craig Stammen (also featured in Inside Pitch) has taken over Clippard’s old role as starter-turned-reliever and has run with it to the tune of a 3-0 record and a 1.67 ERA (6 ER/32.1 IP), striking out 36 batters over that stretch.
And then there is Sean Burnett. It’s hard enough for a non-closer to make an All-Star team, much less a pitcher without a defined eighth-inning role, as Clippard had when he made (and won) the Mid-Summer Classic last July. Yet, there is a compelling case to be made for the Nationals lefty for inclusion. Just look at the numbers.
In 26 relief appearances, the 29 year-old has posted a 1.29 ERA (3 ER/21.0 IP), allowing just 14 hits while striking out 23. His 0.95 WHIP is best on the team, ahead of all five starters. Opponents are batting just .187 against him, including just a single home run, surrendered during Washington’s sweep in Toronto this week.
Burnett has no wins or losses, but picked up a pair of well-earned saves in May. He came in with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth with the Nationals leading 8-5 at home against the Padres on May 14. The lefty needed only one batter to get two outs, inducing a comebacker that resulted in a game-ending, 1-2-3 double play. Seven days later Burnett entered a 2-0 game in Philadelphia with runners at the corners and one out in the ninth. He got Ty Wigginton on a fly ball (which scored an inherited run) and Placido Polanco two batters later on a lineout to end it, preserving a 2-1 victory.
Clippard, Stammen, Burnett and company will need to be at their best this weekend, as they face a potent Yankees lineup. The outcome of the series may well depend on their ability to quietly close the deal, authoring their signature ending as they have done all season long.