Something is wrong with Tyler Clippard.
His troubles have already cost the Washington Nationals (91-59) two of the first four games on this seven game home stand, including tonight’s 4-2 loss to the scorching Milwaukee Brewers (78-72). The Brewers continued their stellar play to climb within 1 1/2 games of the National League’s second wild card playoff spot.
The Philadelphia Phillies prevented the evening from becoming a complete disaster for the Nationals and more than 30,000 fans. The also red-hot Phils beat the Braves, 6-2, thus reducing the Nationals magic number to clinch the NL East Division to 7.
If not for Clippard’s third poor showing in his last four appearances, the magic number would now be 6. During the post-game recap, Washington broadcasters Charlie Slowes and Dave Jaegeler discussed Clippard’s recent elbow soreness with Nats’ Talk Live host Phil Wood. While manager Davey Johnson remarked that his closer’s velocity remained normal, it is reasonable to wonder if Clippard may be more severely injured.
The sports goggle-clad closer’s latest meltdown cost Edwin Jackson his 10th win and the Nationals their 92nd victory. Jackson pitched one of his best game’s of the season, especially considering it came against one of baseball’s top hitting line-ups including probable NL Most Valuable Player, Ryan Braun. Jackson twirled eight dominant innings for Washington, giving up just 6 hits and striking out six.
With Jackson at 101 pitches and due to lead off the Nationals’ half of the 8th inning, Johnson opted to pinch hit for him with Chad Tracy. The Nats’ skipper decided to try to add onto the slim lead rather than allow Jackson to go for the complete game. In his post-game press conference, Johnson admitted he considered allowing his starter to attempt a complete game win. He conceded he probably would have done so had a different part of the order been up.
That crucial decision that ultimately cost the Nationals an important win (all victories in September are crucial), looked to be nothing more than a footnote early in the game. In the first inning, Adam LaRoche hit his 31st home run of the season against Milwaukee starter Sean Marcum. The blast also brought home Ryan Zimmerman and gave Washington a 2-0 lead.
Unfortunately, the Nationals’ offense, which managed a meager five hits, went to sleep after LaRoche’s homer. Jackson made those two runs stand up, permitting only a solo home run by Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy on a 0-2 pitch.
Bryce Harper helped his pitcher tremendously in the 4th inning. After a Braun double, Aramis Ramirez, hitting .500 against the Nats this season, smoked a single to center field. Braun decided to test Harper’s arm. He learned what many others have so far this season — running on Bryce Harper is a bad idea. With the aid of a tremendous plate block by catcher Jesus Flores, Harper gunned down his fellow all-star. Ramirez took second on the throw.
Lucroy followed with a single, Ramirez not daring to advance past third. The next batter, Travis Ishikawa, hit a slow grounder to Danny Espinosa. Showing their gold-glove worthy defense, the Nationals’ second baseman team with shortstop Ian Desmond to turn an impressive double play.
The score remained 2-1 until the 9th inning. Norichika Aoki laid down a perfect bunt. Despite playing in, Zimmerman could do nothing to prevent the speedy Aoki, who some advocated as a possible solution to the Nationals’ pre-season need for a center fielder, from reaching first. He took second on a Jesus Flores passed ball and third on a deep fly out to center by Rickie Weeks.
With one out, Clippard had to face Braun. He lined a game-tying single to left. Unnerved, Clippard paid little attention to Braun, who stole second base and scored what proved to be the game-winning run on Ramirez’s double down the left field line. with the aid of a wild pitch, the Brewers added an insurance run.
Milwaukee closer John Axford, who has recovered from his mid-season struggles, easily retired the Nationals, surrendering only a walk to Zimmerman, for his 32nd save in 39 tries. Jose Veras (5-4), who pitched a scoreless 8th, earned the win. Clippard (2-6) blew his 5th save of the season.
Champs of the Game: Braun (3-4, run, RBI) and Ramirez (2-4, run, RBI) share the honors for their pair of clutch 9th inning hits. With nearly every remaining game a must-win, their heroics kept the Brewers’ wild card hopes alive.
For the Nationals, Jackson pitched likely his best game of the season, especially considering it came against one of baseball’s best hitting line-ups. During his post-game press conference, Davey Johnson admitted he considered allowing Jackson to attempt a complete game win, but decided to pinch-hit for him with Chad Tracy since Jackson was due to lead off the bottom of the 8th. In a season where nearly every decision he has made has been successful, Johnson’s choice to hand the ball to Clippard turned out to be the wrong one.
Chump of the Game: Clippard, who lost his second game of the series. Had Clippard pitched effectively, the Nationals might have begun this 7-game home stand with four victories. Instead, they are 2-2. Still, Clippard’s effectiveness as a closer is a major reason why the Nationals are a 2012 play-off team.
For Milwaukee, Weeks, having a difficult season, went 0-4. His fly out to move Aoki to third base did contribute to the Brewers’ comeback win, however.
Unsung Hero: Aoki, whose perfect bunt got the Brewers’ 9th inning started in the right direction.
For the Nationals, Harper again played superb defense. Despite going 0-4, only an excellent fielding play by the 6’5″ Axford prevented a Harper single to begin the Nationals’ 9th. Had he reached base, Washington would have had three chances with the tying run at the plate.
Next Game: Tomorrow afternoon, 1:05 p.m., Nationals Park, Gio Gonzalez (19-8, 2.95) looks for his 20th win against Wily Peralta (2-0, 2.14) who is doing a wonderful Zack Grienke impression in his brief tenure with Milwaukee.