Tyler Clippard has been the Nationals' closer since May 22, and during that time he's been one of the most effective closers in baseball, converting 32 of 35 save opportunities and holding opponents to a .179 batting average.
Drew Storen, however, was supposed to be the Nationals' closer this season until an elbow injury required surgery and landed him on the disabled list for 3 12 months. Even upon Storen's return to the active roster in July, manager Davey Johnson decided to stick with Clippard as his ninth-inning reliever based both on his performance and the fact Storen still needed to work himself back into peak form.
Well, Storen has finally gotten himself back into peak form -- witness last night's dominating, three-strikeout save against the Dodgers -- and so Johnson is ready to make a change to the back end of his bullpen two weeks before the Nationals make their postseason debut.
The change: Clippard and Storen will share closing duties, effective immediately.
"The fact is, I told pitching coach Steve McCatty that I have confidence in both of them closing," Johnson said. "And depending on the rest situation, or depending on what I think is the matchup, either one of them could be going eighth, the other one going ninth."
It's a bit of an unconventional move to make at this late stage of the season, but Johnson believes both right-handers are up to the challenge because of their histories pitching both in setup and closing roles.
Clippard's recent hiccup -- he's allowed six runs and 11 hits over his last 6 23 innings -- may have contributed as well, though Johnson framed his decision as having more to do with Storen's recent success. The 25-year-old has been scored upon only once in his last 17 appearances, punctuated by last night's three-strikeout save against Los Angeles to clinch the Nationals' first-ever playoff berth.
The way he pitched during that game, did Storen look like he could close against any lineup in baseball?
"There's no question," Johnson said. "There's no question. I think he's kind of an emotional closer. The situation gets him amped. And he likes to pitch amped."
Johnson said several factors will determine which pitcher he uses in save situations moving forward. If the opposition has several right-handed hitters due up, he's more likely to call upon Storen. If the opposition has several left-handed hitters due up, he's more likely to summon Clippard. He'll also factor in recent usage, not wanting to overwork either pitcher.
"I'm not just going to rearrange the whole bullpen," Johnson said. "They're still my late-inning guys, and both of them are great closers. I'll mix and match. ... All those things are going to come into my decision. And when I bring the guy into the ninth, you'll know who I'm using to close. It's kind of simple."