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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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Nats put Scherzer-Strasburg scuffle aside to split Braves series

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USA TODAY Sports

Nats put Scherzer-Strasburg scuffle aside to split Braves series

Bryce Harper homered, Max Scherzer struck out seven in six innings and the Washington Nationals beat the Atlanta Braves 6-2 on Sunday.

Anthony Rendon also had two hits and drove in two runs for Washington, extending his hitting streak to 10 games and helping the Nationals earn a split of the series after Saturday's game was rained out. Adam Eaton and Juan Soto each had three hits.

Two days after a heated exchange with teammate Stephen Strasburg during Friday's 8-5 loss, Scherzer (13-5) allowed two runs and eight hits in his third straight win. The three-time Cy Young Award winner has pitched six or more innings in his last 19 starts.

Kelvin Herrera got five outs for his first save with Washington.

The start of the game was delayed 1 hour, 55 minutes by rain, and another downpour stopped play for almost 100 minutes between the sixth and seventh innings.

Atlanta's Mike Foltynewicz (7-6) gave up four runs and nine hits over 5 2/3 innings.

Harper singled in Eaton to give Washington a 4-2 lead in the sixth. Matt Adams added another RBI single in the seventh, and Harper added a solo drive in the eighth for his 24th homer.

Scherzer was staked to an early 3-0 lead and then got some help from his defense.

Atlanta rookie Ronald Acuna Jr. led off the third with a drive off the wall in center, but he was thrown out by Harper while trying for a double. With a runner on first in the fifth, Freddie Freeman's blast to right was chased down by Eaton on the warning track.

Then in the seventh, Michael A. Taylor made a leaping catch at the wall in center to rob Dansby Swanson of extra bases with one runner on.

Washington got off to a fast start with three runs in the first. Rendon drove in Eaton and Harper with a triple down the right-field line, and then scored on Soto's groundout.

Swanson drove in Atlanta's runs with a groundout in the second and a single in the fourth.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Braves: All-Star 2B Ozzie Albies, who left Friday's game with right hamstring tightness, got the day off.

Nationals: RHP Sean Doolittle (left toe inflammation) experienced extended soreness after throwing off the mound Friday. An MRI Saturday revealed a stress reaction, comparable to a bone bruise, in the bridge of his foot and he is wearing a walking boot. ... RHP Koda Glover (right shoulder tendinitis) was reinstated from the 60-day DL and optioned to Triple-A Syracuse.

UP NEXT

Braves: LHP Sean Newcomb (8-5, 3.51 ERA) pitches the opener of a two-game series in Miami on Monday. He already has beaten the Marlins twice this season, allowing one run in 12 innings.

Nationals: LHP Gio Gonzalez (6-6, 3.72 ERA) opens a three-game series in Milwaukee on Monday night. He is 2-4 with a 4.93 ERA in nine career starts versus the Brewers.

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Nationals trade Brian Goodwin to Kansas City Royals

Nationals trade Brian Goodwin to Kansas City Royals

KANSAS CITY, Mo.  -- Outfielder Brian Goodwin has been acquired by the Kansas City Royals from the Washington Nationals for minor league pitcher Jacob Condra-Bogan.

The 27-year-old Goodwin hit .200 with three homers and 12 RBIs in 48 games for the Nationals this season. He bruised his left wrist diving for a ball and did not play from April 15 until May 15, when he had two at-bats. He went back on the disabled list, returned June 1 and is hitting .171 (7 for 41) since.

Condra-Bogan, 23, went 1-1 with a 2.08 ERA in 16 relief outings with Lexington of the South Atlantic League and one appearance with Wilmington of the Carolina League, also Class A.

The trade was announced Sunday.

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