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."