Davey Johnson’s Managing Skills Provide a Pivotal Play for the Nationals
The first-place Washington Nationals have won six straight games en route to soaring to an impressive 15 games over .500. Led by dominant pitching and an improved offensive output, Washington has built a four game cushion in the National League East.
This week’s Pivotal Play was turned in by Davey Johnson, who should be commended for his decision to implement Tyler Clippard into a ninth-inning role as the Nationals’ closer. Clippard has converted nine straight save chances for the Nationals, solidifying one of the team’s greatest weaknesses.
Having played 22 one-run games, the most of any team in the NL East, it goes without saying that protecting close leads is more important for offensively-challenged teams like Washington.
Prior to calling on Clippard to save games, Johnson began the season alternating between co-closers Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez to replace Drew Storen in the back of Washington’s bullpen. Lidge was ineffective before being placed on the disabled list, leaving just Rodriguez to handle the duties.
Rodriguez’s late-inning work became so erratic and wild that he couldn’t be trusted with minimal advantages. He blew three of his final seven save chances, walking seven batters in his last 6.1 innings on the mound. A power right-hander with a plus fastball that can reach velocities as high as 100 miles per hour, Rodriguez has the swing-and-miss repertoire you look for from a closer. But Johnson made the difficult decision to relieve the 25 year-old of his ninth-inning duties.
Choosing Clippard to rack up saves wasn’t an easy decision for Johnson. The 27-year-old setup man had registered just one save in 199 appearances over the first five years of his career. Additionally, it was left-hander Sean Burnett – not Clippard – who Johnson would often turn to when Rodriguez faltered early in the season. But Johnson opted to make Clippard, the master of an awkward and deceptive delivery and the owner of one of baseball’s best changeups, the team’s closer until Storen was deemed healthy enough to return.
Not coincidentally, the Nationals have played their best baseball recently – protecting the leads they struggled to maintain in the weeks before Johnson’s late-May decision to realign his bullpen. Clippard has pitched to a 2.22 ERA, striking out 34 batters in 28.1 innings of work on the season. But it has been his recent dominance in the ninth-inning that has turned him into an all-star caliber option for Washington.
In 10 appearances since being named Washington’s closer, Clippard has allowed one base hit in 9.1 innings. He’s fanned 11 batters and walked just three, needing more than 15 pitches to record a save just twice. It’s no coincidence that Washington has been able to string wins together and increase its lead in the division directly after finding a viable closing option.
Johnson could have stuck with Rodriguez. He could have given Burnett the gig. He also could have opted to use a trio of arms to protect leads. But instead he went with Clippard, and that play has proven pivotal.