ST. LOUIS -- Somewhat lost Thursday between Michael Morse clubbing two homers and Gio Gonzalez picking up his 21st win was Tyler Clippard's return to form.
Clippard pitched a scoreless eighth inning and struck out two Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, with Nationals manager Davey Johnson remarking Friday that the right-hander "looked like the old Clip."
"It can be like a hitter going on a little slump. Am I going to take him out of the lineup just because he had a couple 0-fers? No. Same way [with Clippard]," Johnson said. "I know what he can do, and I'm going to ask him to do it again. He doesn't have to prove anything to me. He's been great. He's been great not just this year, but last year, too. I haven't lost any confidence at all in him."
Clippard stepped in as Washington's closer when Drew Storen was injured and performed admirably, recording 32 saves, but he had been struggling in September. In 10 outings from Sept. 3 through Wednesday, he'd given up 11 runs in 9 1/3 innings, and opposing batters were hitting .422 off him.
On Thursday, however, he looked more like the pitcher who owned a 1.93 ERA in the first half, not the one with a 5.85 mark since the All-Star break. He struck out Laynce Nix and Darin Ruf, then induced an infield popup from Domonic Brown, all on 15 pitches. Even though he wasn't going to stop going to Clippard in those situations, Johnson believes Clippard's success Thursday should carry over.
"The change in the roles, he's handled that great -- from setting up to closing and now kind of sharing the job, turning it over to Storen," Johnson said. "His numbers the last three or four times had not been good, and sometimes that can wear on you. I certainly haven't lost confidence in him."
Davey: Close race 'good education' for Nats
ST. LOUIS -- Manager Davey Johnson has said several times that he won't make any adjustments to his starting rotation until the Nationals have clinched the National League East title.
Once that happens -- and it very well could this weekend at Busch Stadium, with Washington's magic number down to three entering Friday's game -- Johnson will put plans into action to align his rotation for the NL Division Series, give extra rest to his position players, and so on. But with the Braves as hot as any team in baseball and only six games left on the schedule, he pointed out Friday afternoon, "They may all have to pitch right to the end."
While the extra rest and time to think ahead would certainly help, there might be a silver lining in the Braves refusing to let the Nationals officially lock up the division.
"It'd help us a lot more if they played worse. But I like these games all meaning something," Johnson said. "I think it's a good education. It makes it more fun knowing the [Wild Card-pursuing] Cardinals have got a lot riding on it, and we've got a lot riding on it."
Johnson's point about education is particularly interesting, as Washington will likely be generalized as "inexperienced" come October due to its youth. But marching through a winning season and having to stay sharp until the very end is an experience in and of itself, one not entirely different from actually playing in the postseason.
"This is what it's all about. It's a whole new different feeling if you're playing for a pennant or in the postseason, where every game, every pitch, everything means something," Johnson said. "Experience does help, but going through it helps, too. It helps a great deal. Just keep doing the same things you did to get here and you'll be fine."
On the topic of altering his rotation, Johnson pointed out that Saturday could be Jordan Zimmermann's last regular-season start, and he won't get back on the mound until next weekend's NLDS. But when it was brought to his attention that Zimmermann usually pitches best on regular rest, Johnson said he doesn't have any plans for Zimmermann to throw a simulated game or anything in between Saturday and his first postseason start.
"If we clinched it earlier, then I'd line him up. This time of year, it doesn't really matter," Johnson said. "Guys are going to be feeling great whether it's six days' rest, seven -- it doesn't matter. ... He'll be ready. I'm not worried about it."
With Thursday's victory against the Phillies, Gonzalez became the first pitcher in franchise history to record 21 regular-season wins, the first Washington-based pitcher to do so since Bob Porterfield won 22 in 1953, and D.C.'s first lefty to win 21 games since Earl Whitehill in 1933.