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Another Clippard meltdown costs Nationals

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Another Clippard meltdown costs Nationals

Ignore, for a moment, the question of whether Tyler Clippard will get another chance to pitch in a save situation this season. It's a valid question, and one Davey Johnson will have to answer not with his words but with his actions over the final 12 days of the regular season and into the postseason.

The greater issue, from the Nationals' perspective, isn't so much whether Clippard will pitch the ninth inning anymore but whether he can get himself back on track, regardless of what role he holds out of the bullpen.

Any deep run through October by the Nationals is going to require clutch performances by Clippard, whether they come in the seventh inning, the eighth inning, the ninth inning or beyond. That's a fact well-known throughout the clubhouse, and it's why several teammates immediately offered words of encouragement to the right-hander Friday night after he blew a ninth-inning lead and handed the Brewers a 4-2 victory.

"I just told him to keep his head up," said Edwin Jackson, whose eight dominant innings became moot after Clippard's implosion. "He's going to be important for us just to stay strong. It's going to be vital for him to stay strong. I told him he's going to be a big part of our success."

Clippard already has played a major role in helping the Nationals amass baseball's best record through this late stage of the season: 91-59 even after this punch-to-the-gut loss. But his performance over the last two weeks -- nine earned runs and 15 hits surrendered in only 7 13 innings -- hasn't been anywhere close to his usual lofty standards.

And that, more than anything, is reason for the Nationals to be concerned.

"It's been really bad lately for me," Clippard said. "I've been trying to pinpoint exactly what it is, as far as making as many mistakes as I've been making. I've been feeling really good physically, which makes it more frustrating from my perspective. Because when I feel physically 100 percent, I should be getting outs pretty consistently. And I have my whole career. So right now, it's been pretty bad."

Clippard's meltdown Friday night was his most difficult to swallow yet. For eight innings, the Nationals had played superb baseball, getting an early two-run homer from Adam LaRoche, stellar defensive play from just about every position on the field and eight lights-out innings from Jackson, who certainly deserved to become the fifth member of Washington's rotation with at least 10 wins this season.

Johnson briefly considered leaving Jackson in for the top of the ninth, giving the veteran a chance to notch his second complete game of the season. But with his pitch count at 101, and with his spot in the lineup due in the bottom of the eighth of a 2-1 game, the manager decided not to press his luck.

"Well, I mean, I might've," he said. "I might've. But I felt like here we have a chance to add on, I'm going to add on, and Clip's been awfully good."

But was Clippard even the closer at that moment? That was a subject of debate well before Friday's game began, with Johnson saying he plans to split the job between Clippard and Drew Storen moving forward, a product both of Clippard's recent struggles and Storen's recent dominance.

Plenty of eyes among the 30,382 in attendance turned to the bullpen during the bottom of the eighth, straining to detect which of the two right-handers that was warming up. Clippard's exaggerated delivery -- all arms and legs -- was noticeable even from the farthest reaches of the upper deck.

He entered to a combination of cheers and nervous energy, then immediately found himself in trouble after Brewers leadoff man Norichika Aoki perfectly placed a bunt down the third base line for a single.

"The play of the ninth inning was Aoki's bunt," Johnson said. "The bunt was the key, because the guy can run. He's going to be on second base. That was the whole inning, really. That changes things. Clip's rushing to keep them from stealing another bag, and he didn't make good pitches."

Aoki didn't need to steal second; he swiped that bag thanks to a passed ball charged to Jesus Flores. Rickie Weeks' long fly ball to center allowed Aoki to advance to third, and that really put pressure on Clippard, now forced to face the hottest hitter in the National League in Ryan Braun.

The reigning league MVP and sudden candidate to repeat had already doubled twice in the game. This time, he pounced on Clippard's first-pitch changeup and poked it into left field for the game-tying single.

The Brewers weren't finished. Braun immediately stole second -- "That's on me," Clippard said. "That's just absent-mindedness, and that can't happen" -- and promptly scored when Aramis Ramirez tagged a fastball into the left field corner for an RBI double.

Throw in a wild pitch and another run-scoring hit that was originally ruled an error on Ian Desmond, and Clippard managed to turn a 2-1 lead into a 4-2 deficit in the span of six batters and depart the mound to some boos from the crowd.

"It hurt tonight, I'm not going to lie to you," he said. "It's not easy."

Nor is the task Johnson now faces. He said afterward he would use Storen if a save situation arises on Saturday, but insisted he would go back to Clippard again in the coming days.

Whether Johnson stays true to his word or not, his greater concern is getting Clippard right again. If the Nationals are to realize their ultimate goal by season's end, they know they're going to need one of baseball's best relievers over the last two years to bounce back from two ragged weeks.

"It's never easy to deal with failure, that's human nature," Clippard said. "I don't think it matters. If you're giving up the lead in a game, it hurts, whether it's the seventh, eighth or ninth. Obviously we're in a pennant race and tonight would've been a big win for us, and that makes it hurt even worse. But that's how it's supposed to feel. It shouldn't be any surprise there."

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Williamson homers again, Giants top Nationals 4-3

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USA TODAY Sports

Williamson homers again, Giants top Nationals 4-3

SAN FRANCISCO -- Mac Williamson had to dust himself off after crashing into a low padded wall near the stands in left field while chasing a foul ball.

More frustrated than hurt, Williamson took it out on Nationals pitcher Tanner Roark a few moments later after undergoing a series of concussion tests in the dugout.

Williamson homered for the second straight night and third in five games, hitting a tiebreaking shot in the sixth inning to lead San Francisco to a 4-3 victory over Washington on Tuesday night.

"I got pretty lucky," Williamson said. "I felt fine then and I feel fine now. I'm sure once the adrenalin wears off later tonight, tomorrow we'll see how the body feels. I'm sure I'll be a little sore."

Brandon Belt hit his fifth home run in six games, Joe Panik added three hits and scored twice, and the Giants won their third straight and fourth in the last five.

One night after hitting a 464-foot homer in the series opener, Williamson hit a first-pitch solo shot to center off Roark with two outs in the sixth inning that bounced off the top of the wall and broke a 3-all tie. It wasn't as far as Monday's clout -- this one went 423 feet -- but was just as pivotal for the Giants.

"We've talked about what a shot in the arm he's been and he's more than that," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. "He came through again tonight. Good for him because he's worked hard at it."

Williamson's deciding home run came one inning after he stumbled over the bullpen mound in foul territory and crashed into a low wall near the stands while trying to chase down Bryce Harper's foul ball. Williamson stayed down briefly as team trainers rushed out before getting to his feet.

"I tried to roll my neck a little bit and my head down a little bit when I started going down," Williamson said. "I think that helped break my fall. I was just a little frustrated I didn't come up with the play. I had it in my glove and it came out."

Belt hit a two-run shot off Roark (1-2) in the third.

Michael Taylor had a three-run homer for Washington, which has lost four straight and 14 of 20 since opening the season 4-0.

"It seems like that sixth inning's been biting us in the rear as of late," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "We're swinging the bats. We just can't get the big hit with people on base."

Reyes Moronta (1-0) retired six batters for his first career win. Sam Dyson pitched one inning and Hunter Strickland worked the ninth for his fifth save.

The Giants got a run off Roark in the first but left the bases loaded when Evan Longoria struck out looking to end the inning. Belt homered on a 3-2 pitch from Roark in the second to make it 3-0.

Washington tied it on Taylor's three-run homer off starter Ty Blach in the third. Ryan Zimmerman walked and Moises Sierra singled before Taylor's deep drive into the right-field stands.

Roark went into the game 6-0 in seven career games against San Francisco but couldn't find a rhythm this time. He allowed four runs on six hits, walked two and hit a batter and threw a pair of wild pitches.

WHERE DID IT GO?

Panik hit a soft comebacker to Roark in the fifth that glanced off the pitcher's glove then bounced up on the top of his cap before falling to the turf. Roark initially couldn't locate the ball but found it in time to throw to first for the out.

AILING BLACH

Blach allowed three runs and four hits in five innings. After the game, Bochy said the left-hander suffered from food poisoning last week and was given an IV on Monday. "That was a really gutty effort that he gave us," Bochy said.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: Placed RHP Shawn Kelley on the 10-disabled list with ulnar nerve irritation in his right elbow. Infielder/outfielder Matt Reynolds was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse and outfielder Rafael Bautista and infielder Adrian Sanchez were called up.

UP NEXT

Nationals RHP Max Scherzer (4-1, 1.36 ERA) and Giants RHP Jeff Samardzija (1-0, 0.00) take to the mound for the series finale at AT&T Park on Wednesday. Samardzija is making his second start after beginning the season on the disabled list.

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Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

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USA TODAY

Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

Welcome to Inside Baseball. Here, we're taking a quick peek at what's going on ... inside ... baseball. 

We're almost a month into the MLB season, and that sweet noise you hear is the sound of sample sizes starting to become reliable! So far, the Red Sox are very good except for the nights they're getting no-hit, Derek Jeter's Marlins and their .227 winning percentage "aren't accepting a losing culture," and Mike Trout is well on his way to another historically-great 3rd place finish in the MVP race. 

AT NATS PARK

As it stands today, the Nationals are sitting in 4th in the NL East. It's early, they haven't been healthy, etc. etc., whatever. It hasn't been great. Their pitching staff features the best rotation in baseball paired alongside one of the worst bullpens in baseball. No bullpen in baseball has a higher homerun/flyball percentage (18%) than the Nationals. Only two teams - the Rockies and the Royals - strand runners on base at a lower clip than the Nationals (64.0 LOB%). If you really want to get into the weeds, their Win Probabilty and Clutch numbers tell a grim story too. 

Don't smash that panic button yet, though (maybe just lightly rest your hand on it?). There are a few reasons to believe that maybe the bullpen isn't actually as bad as they've been the first month.  They're striking out hitters at an elite level so far - only the Brewers and the Yankees have better K/9 and K% numbers than the Nats.  If you take take a look back at which bullpens led the league in strikeout numbers over the last handful of years, you'll see a *lot* of playoff teams. In the three-true-outcome era, having a bullpen that gets swings-and-misses is inarguably valuable. The Nats have that. 

Taking a look at their individual numbers, it's clear there's an excellent backend hidden somewhere in the bullpen right now. Sammy Solis' ERA is almost four runs higher than his FIP (fielding-independent pitching), a clear sign that Solis has pitched well but been a victim of the Nats' shoddy defense. The same goes for Ryan Madson, whose ERA sits at almost seven despite an FIP under three. Assuming that bullpen roles become more established once the data catches up, the Nats' bullpen could look a lot better in a month or two. 

AROUND BASEBALL

What you should know: Manny Machado's half-season showcase is going swimmingly. He's slashing .360/.447/.708 with eight homers through the first month or so of games. He's posted a 208 wRC+, which is a fancy way of saying he's been 108 percent better than league average at the plate so far. He's been the most valuable hitter this season and the second-most valuable player overall. Meanwhile, the Orioles are 6-17 and already 12 games out of first place in the AL East. It hasn't even been a month yet. Is this the year the the MLB trade deadline is exciting?!

What you should watch: Angels @ Astros (4/24-4/25)

Shohei Ohtani is pitching on Tuesday night, so that's reason enough. But, if you need more, there's also Mike Trout, the defending World Series champs, and Justin Verlander pitching on Wednesday. It also happens to be a battle between the best two teams in the AL West, separated by half a game for first place. If there's such a thing as exciting April baseball, it looks like this. 

Player of the week: I know we already talked about him, but no one's been better than Manny Machado over the last seven days. He's hitting .500/.586/1.208 with five homers during that span. After being bit by historically bad luck during the first half of last season, Machado has been putting up monster numbers ever since:

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