Surviving The Gauntlet
The baseball season is full of many tests. This year, the Nationals schedule has them slated to face a total of 20 other Major League squads: the five American League East clubs joining the standard 15 National League teams on the slate. Much of what was considered the “easy” portion of the schedule came early, giving those who doubted the team’s April success grounds for an ominous warning: just wait until May 18.
That was the day the Nationals began a stretch of 32 straight games (originally 33, but one was postponed due to rain) in which they played every member of both the NL and AL East, including five games against Atlanta and six versus Baltimore. Washington entered that portion of the schedule at 23-15, a half-game back of the Braves and just two games ahead of the Mets, with the Marlins another game behind in a very tight division race. Even though Washington dropped a tough loss on Sunday to close that stretch, they still finished the gauntlet with an 18-14 mark, leaving them at 41-29 overall, three-and-a-half games clear of the second place Mets and four ahead of the Braves. The Nationals also put some distance between themselves and both the Marlins (eight back) and Philadelphia Phillies (nine back).
They have done this with the same formula they have used all season long: excellent pitching and clutch hitting, often from different sources each night. While Adam LaRoche has continued to provide the power and Ian Desmond keeps delivering big, two-out RBI, others have left their marks as well. There was the Stephen Strasburg’s first Major League home run to help beat the Orioles. Bryce Harper’s first Major League walk-off to grab first place back from the Mets. Ryan Zimmerman’s bases-clearing double against Tim Hudson and the Braves. The Tyler Moore show in Toronto.
Through it all, though, there has been a larger revelation, one that has come so quietly that no matter how much attention we draw to it, it never seems to be enough. Tyler Clippard has emerged as not only the closer of the Nationals, but one of the best in the game since he has stepped into the role. In addition to a perfect 12-for-12 mark in save opportunities, Clippard has put up the following line in 16 appearances against Eastern Division foes since May 18:
15.1 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 5 BB, 20 K
To summarize: Clippard has allowed just two hits (and seven total baserunners), while recording 46 of the most important outs of the last five weeks. He has struck out 20, four times the number he has walked, and a rate of better than 11.7 per 9.0 innings pitched. He recorded the final out in 12 of those 18 wins, including three straight on the road at Fenway Park. His seven Interleague saves matched Yankees closer Rafael Soriano for the most in baseball.
Despite Sunday’s blip, Sean Burnett has been terrific setting up in front of Clippard. When roommate Drew Storen returns, the back of the bullpen will only get that much stronger.
While beating Major League teams is never easy, the Nationals do play seven of their final 13 games before the All-Star Break against the Colorado Rockies, owners of the highest staff ERA in the Majors at 5.33, easily more than two runs per game higher than Washington’s 2.95 mark. It might be just the opportunity the pitching-lead Nats need to get their bats going, heading into the season’s second half.