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Clippard blossoms into closer

Clippard blossoms into closer

It was May 22 when Davey Johnson handed Tyler Clippard the ball for the bottom of the ninth inning of what became a 5-2 Nationals victory in Philadelphia, thus designating the right-hander his team's closer for the foreseeable future.

Exactly three months later, it's hard to dispute Johnson's decision. When Clippard finished off the Braves last night at Nationals Park, he secured his 28th save in 31 tries since getting the job.

Think about that: 28 saves in three months. That's one-half of the season. Over a full 162-game slate, he would finish with 56 saves. That would rank third all-time behind only Francisco Rodriguez (62 saves in 2008) and Bobby Thigpen (57 saves in 1990).

"I feel good," Clippard said with a shrug last night. "I don't really think it's any different than it had been in the past. I've been used a lot, and I'm used to it. So it's been good."

Clippard may be used to pitching a lot, but he's not necessarily used to pitching in so many high-stress situations. Sure he had to put out plenty of fires as the Nationals' top setup man the last two seasons, but ultimately he was handing the baton to another reliever for the ninth inning.

Then there's also the small matter of pitching in a pennant race for the first time. That ramps up the intensity just a bit, does it not?

"The energy in the stadium has definitely changed throughout the course of the year," he said. "More fans are showing up. They're more into the game, every pitch. Especially in the ninth. Especially against Atlanta. So yeah, you can feel the energy. For me, it's more of the same. I try to take every outing and approach it the same way. I don't feel any different. My nerves are good. So for me it's the same. But you can definitely sense the energy in the stadium."

Clippard hasn't exactly mowed down the opposition every time he's taken the mound. He's been prone to create a few jams for himself, as he did last night in letting the Braves' first two batters reach base in the ninth and bring the tying run to the plate.

But with only a couple of exceptions, he's gotten the job done. Opponents are hitting a scant .145 against him, and he's striking out 10.75 batters per nine innings.

"I mean, he's been outstanding," Johnson said. "We've had to change roles a couple times during the year because of the injury to Drew Storen and Henry Rodriguez has had some problems. ... The year he had last year was an unbelievable year. And he's doing the same thing closing."

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This year's Nationals roster is stacked with glorious facial hair

This year's Nationals roster is stacked with glorious facial hair

The following is a list of things the 2017 Washington Nationals appear to have: A talented outfield led by Bryce Harper and Adam Eaton. A rising superstar at shortstop in Trea Turner. A possibly major hole at closer.

The following is a list of things the 2017 Washington Nationals appear to not have: Razors. Shaving cream. A desire to groom their faces.

A fun tradition at each team's spring training is the annual photo day, because photo day forces professional athletes to pose in front of cameras like they're being featured in the poster of an upcoming blockbuster movie. And after poring through the snapshots from the Nationals' photo day, a single trend emerged.

This year's team is a hairy bunch.

Among that bunch are the usual suspects, such as Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth:

But there are some surprises, most notably of which is Stephen Strasburg. The right-hander tends to keep his mug 100-percent clean-shaven, but for now, at least, he's allowed his face to become quite fertile:

Then there's newcomer Adam Lind, who has a goatee that Duke's Blue Devil logo would be forced to respect:

Shawn Kelley, meanwhile, who's pictured below, has a beard that looks like...

...Derek Norris' beard, before Derek Norris' beard hit puberty and grew up to be the strong, mature beard it is today:

There are scraggly ones, such as Daniel Murphy's:

And fuller, more complete ones, like Eaton's (full marks, by the way, for the trade acquisition's ability to seamlessly connect 'stache to beard):

The most wild photo of all, however, was this one of Turner. Is this the Nats stud, or a picture of Leonard DiCaprio from a scene in The Revenant? Hard to tell with all that stubble the infielder's cultivating:

One potential positive of this team-wide movement: If Turner and his teammates keep what they're growing down in Florida going throughout the season, their faces will be plenty warm by the time playoff baseball comes around. 

RELATED: HARPER GOES YARD IN FIRST AT-BAT OF THE SPRING

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Nationals' Bryce Harper mashes monster homer on second pitch of spring training

Nationals' Bryce Harper mashes monster homer on second pitch of spring training

The Nationals played their first game of spring training today against the Mets. They won, but that's not nearly the biggest story of the day. It was Bryce Harper's first at-bat that stole the show. 

On just the second pitch he saw of spring training, from lefty Sean Gilmartin, Harper mashed a ginormous home run to right center field. MLB.com shared video of the bomb. 

According to Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post, Harper smacked the ball at least 400 feet. In his second at-bat, he hit a line-drive single on the first pitch. 

Let's just say it was an exciting start to the year for Harper, who won the 2015 NL MVP only to endure a let-down last season. As Castillo points out, the slugger hit .226 against left-handed pitchers in 2016. 

Harper enters spring training at 230 pounds, up 15 pounds of muscle from last year. 

“I just felt going into the offseason you want to get as strong as you can, try to maintain your weight the best you can and just do everything the right way,” he told the Post. 

MORE NATIONALS: Baker thinks DC sports teams can win a championship this year