Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Tyler Walker came through with two big strikeouts in the Nats' 3-2 win.
And if this game didn't also prove that if the Nats are going to have any chance of maintaining a winning record over the long haul ... well, you don't understand the importance of a deep bullpen.
"We like to play, too," Brian Bruney said. "It can't just be the 'Clip and Capps Show' every night."
No, but until Bruney and Co. establish they can enter a tight situation and not ramp up Jim Riggleman's blood pressure, the manager has no choice but to ride Clippard and Capps until their arms fall off.
Perhaps, then, tonight's nip-and-tuck win, with Clippard and Capps both sidelined due to overuse, was the first step toward a more-balanced bullpen. Those two MVPs may still be Riggleman's go-to guys. But perhaps he'll actually consider handing the ball to Bruney or Tyler Walker or Miguel Batista in a competitive situation down the road.
Riggleman has no choice. He can't in good conscience burn out his two best relievers in mid-May. Not if this team has any visions of lingering around a pennant race through the summer. The Nats are going to need Clippard and Capps come July and August and September. To ensure they're still available then, they've got to spread the ball around more now.
"We've just got to back off those guys now and again, and some other guys have to do it," Riggleman said. "That's what it's got to be. Everybody's got to contribute."
So, as difficult as it was, the manager sat Clippard and Capps down tonight. Clippard had thrown 5 2/3 innings over the last six games. Capps had pitched in four of those six games and had warmed up in the bullpen the other two times.
The decision was made pregame. The Nationals would need to get outs from the other five members of their bullpen.
Life would have been easier for everyone had they simply opened up a more substantial lead for a change. Take a 5-run lead into the seventh for once. But if you've been following this team since Opening Day, you know that's not the M.O. around NatsTown. They've played 32 games now. Seventeen have been decided by two runs or less, including the last six.
So, that pattern's not about to change. On the bright side, the Nationals are 12-5 in those games decided by two runs or less. They're 8-3 in one-run games.
"Yeah, we'd like to win every game by 10 runs," Ryan Zimmerman said. "But the good teams, I guess, figure out ways to win [close ones] instead of lose them. The last two years, we've been the team that figures out ways to lose them. This year, we've figured out ways to win them so far."
So it was no surprise when the Nats took a 2-0 lead into the sixth inning tonight, buoyed by back-to-back homers from Adam Kennedy and Zimmerman and another strong performance by Luis Atilano. But the rookie needed 102 pitches to make it through 5 1/3 innings, so Riggleman had to turn to his bullpen to record 11 outs.
It took every method of managerial finagling to pull it off -- double switches, timely match-ups -- but five different relievers were able to notch those final 11 outs. And just about every one of them came up big when called upon.
Doug Slaten, making his Nats debut, entered with two on and one out in the sixth. It took only one pitch to coerce a double-play soft liner off the bat of Ike Davis. Just like you drew it up, right, Doug?
"Oh yeah, that's my approach," Slaten said, unable to keep a straight face. "No, that's a great finish for that inning. I just wanted to get ahead, and he swung at it."
Next up was Walker, the consummate mop-up man. Did you realize that until tonight, the Nationals were 0-9 in games Walked pitched? He hadn't even stood on the mound for one nanosecond with his team holding a lead.
"As a reliever, as a competitor, you strive to be in those situations," he said.
With two huge strikeouts, both on full-count sliders, Walker perhaps convinced his manager to entrust him in similar situations down the road.
"We're not offended by it at all," Walker said of Riggleman's previous refusal to use anyone other than Clippard or Capps in tight situations. "We haven't pitched well enough to merit that. But it was time for us to step up and get some big outs, especially late in the game with the lead."
The one guy who had been given a few opportunities in the late innings was Bruney, who more often than not had failed miserably. So imagine the right-hander's relief tonight to come into a tight spot in the eighth inning and get two quick outs to preserve the lead.
"We were all thrown a challenge today," he said. "We got through it and did a good job."
Before the game, Riggleman had decided Batista would be his closer if the situation called for it. The veteran right-hander has plenty of experience in the ninth inning and now owns 40 career saves. But he didn't find out tonight he'd be the man until the eighth inning rolled around and bullpen coach Jim Lett informed him.
Batista wasn't perfect. Perhaps fazed for a moment by the situation, he allowed a solo homer to Angel Pagan that cut the lead to 3-2 and then put the tying run on with a two-out single by Alex Cora.
"You never get used to that feeling," he said. "It was kind of interesting. You get a different rush when you go out there with a game on the line."
But Batista ultimately got the job done. He struck out Jason Bay, the 11th strikeout by Nationals pitchers tonight, and earned his first save of the year.
And so the Nats proved they can win a game without "Clip 'n' Save." It wasn't always pretty. And they certainly will prefer to have their top two relievers available next time they take a two-run lead into the seventh.
But for the first time all season, the Nationals emerged from a ballgame feeling confident about the rest of a relief corps that to date had oozed anything but confidence.