MINNEAPOLIS -- For two days, Tyler Clippard said, he heard a version of the same question from his fellow National League All-Stars:
"Only one Washington National?"
Indeed, Clippard was the Nats' lone active representative at Target Field on Tuesday night, a last-minute replacement for injured teammate Jordan Zimmermann. Clippard pitched at a critical moment in the fifth inning of what proved an entertaining 5-3 American League victory, but the fact he was the only man with a "W" on his cap seemed something of an injustice, considering Washington sits in a virtual tie with the Braves atop the NL East, with the league's third-best winning percentage, and has spent 43 days in first place.
Because he was asked about it so much, Clippard had given the matter some thought and come to the conclusion that it might not be such a bad thing.
"The thing I've noticed with our club is that, while we should have more than one guy here, we have a lot of guys who are having really good seasons, but not great seasons," he said. "It's a lot of really consistent play out of our hitters on the team, like [Jayson Werth] hitting around .270, right on the cusp of being an All-Star. [Adam] LaRoche should be here, too, but is right on the cusp. [Anthony] Rendon should definitely be here, but is on the cusp."
"All right on the edge of going one way or the other," Clippard said, "and for some reason, I'm the only one here."
And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"You want consistency out of your guys," Clippard said. "We've had that, especially with our starting pitchers. You pretty much know what you're going to be on a daily basis. … Now we're starting to play really good defense over the last three-four weeks, and it's no coincidence that over the last three-four weeks, we've been playing our best baseball and winning. I think we're right where we want to be."
Clippard made his presence felt during the fifth inning, when he took over from Cardinals reliever Pat Neshek after Mike Trout's go-ahead double gave the American League a 4-3 lead and runners on second and third base with one out.
Step 1, figure out which hitters he was to face.
"I was just happy to be in there. Then they announced [the Astros' Jose] Altuve and I was like, 'Oh, man,'" said Clippard, who has surrendered three hits including a pair of doubles in five regular-season at-bats against the diminutive second baseman. "But I did my best to get out of that jam there."
Clippard practiced some damage control, retiring Altuve on a sacrifice fly that made it 5-3, then retiring the reigning AL MVP Award winner, Miguel Cabrera, who'd smacked a two-run home run in the first inning, on an inning-ending fly to center field. That at-bat took eight pitches.
"In a game like this, in a spot like that, I wouldn't have wanted it any other way," Clippard said. "I'm mad at myself for not striking him out. But I got him out, so I can't complain too much."
The Nationals' All-Star count will not matter much beginning Friday, when the team resumes play against another division leader, the NL Central's Milwaukee Brewers, at Nationals Park.
Over the past week, Clippard said, players began to do a bit of scoreboard watching. It's getting to be that time of year.
"We've noticed whether the Braves are winning or not, for sure," Clippard said. "That's what the second half is all about, separating yourself from the pack. I know we're tied with them at the top of the division right now, but we feel like we have our best baseball to play. We haven't necessarily hit our potential."
This was Clippard's second All-Star Game experience. In 2011, he faced only one batter and surrendered a single, but saw NL left fielder Hunter Pence throw out Jose Bautista at home plate to end the inning. When the NL scored, Clippard wound up the winning pitcher.
Has this second experience been any different?
"It all still feels pretty new," Clippard said before the game. "I guess the only difference is I kind of knew what to expect, from all the signatures you have to do, and the Home Run Derby and what that was going to be like. It's obviously a new city, a new venue, new teammates. It's really a cool experience."