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MIL@WSH: LaRoche jacks his 31st homer of the season

WASHINGTON -- Tyler Clippard's struggling to solve a mystery he'd rather not be trying to figure out. The big right-hander feels great physically, but he hasn't been throwing like he did earlier in the season, and those troubles surfaced again Friday night.

Clippard came on in the ninth to try and close out a victory for Edwin Jackson. But Clippard quickly found trouble and gave up three runs as the Brewers rallied for a 4-2 victory over Washington before 30,382 at Nationals Park.

The good news for Washington (91-59) is Atlanta lost, which drops the magic number to seven. There just weren't many smiles in the clubhouse on this night.

It was Clippard's fifth blown save of the season and dropped his record to 2-6. Manager Davey Johnson said earlier in the day that now, with last year's closer Drew Storen all the way back from elbow surgery, he'll use both right-handers in the closer's role. Johnson reiterated his support for Clippard after the game and said co-closers remains the plan.

"He'll be fine," Johnson said. "That one just got away. One battle. He's been awfully good."

But it's been awfully frustrating of late. Clippard is now 0-3 this month and has given up nine earned runs in just 8 1/3 innings. His overall ERA has jumped to 3.59, and the problems are truly confusing Clippard, who's had 32 saves this season.

"I've been trying to pinpoint what exactly is it," he said. "I've been feeling really good physically, which makes it more frustrating. When I feel physically 100 percent, I should be getting outs pretty consistently, and I have my whole career. Right now, it's been pretty bad."

One thing that Clippard knows has been a problem is his lack of consistency locating the fastball. He said that, in this game, he left a lot of balls over the middle and up. In addition, there was one wild pitch, a passed ball plus a stolen base -- all of which led to runs for the surging Brewers (78-72) in that ninth inning.

Jose Veras (5-4) retired Washington in the eighth, and Clippard ran into trouble right away when Norichika Aoki led off the ninth with a perfect bunt single down the third-base line. Aoki then moved to second on catcher Jesus Flores' passed ball and went to third when Rickie Weeks flied out to deep center.

Ryan Braun then hit a game-tying single to left, then quickly stole second. Aramis Ramirez followed with a tie-breaking double for a 3-2 lead -- and then went to third on a Clippard wild pitch. Travis Ishikawa then added an insurance run on an RBI infield single.

"The play of the ninth inning was Aoki's bunt," Johnson said. "The bunt was the key, because the guy can run, he's going to be on second base. That was the whole inning, really. "

Jackson was in line to win after giving up one run in eight innings. He was trying to become the fifth National starter to win at least 10 games, and Johnson said he strongly considered letting Jackson pitch in the ninth.

The right-hander said later he could have gone back out there. But Jackson's spot came up in the lineup in the bottom of the eighth, and Johnson -- wanting to try and add to the 2-1 lead -- pinch-hit for Jackson.

"If he does send me back out there, I'm definitely ready to go," Jackson said. "But we have guys that can hit off the bench. We're trying to get that extra run or two."

Jackson retired 11 in a row at one point after a slow start and never got in trouble after the fourth.

"Over the years, we've faced him a lot," Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said. "I've seen him where you get him in trouble, he gets out of it, and then he gets locked in and you don't do anything against him."

That's what happened in this game. The Nationals took a 2-0 lead in the first on Adam LaRoche's two-run homer off Shaun Marcum. Jonathan Lucroy led off the second with a long solo homer to left off Jackson to make it 2-1.

Defense helped the Nationals keep that lead after Milwaukee got three hits in the fourth. Braun led off that inning with his second double of the game and tried to score when Ramirez singled to center. But Bryce Harper nailed him at the plate with a perfect throw for the first out of that inning.

"I just picked it up and threw it," Harper said. "I was just trying to throw him out, and I got him. I was trying to throw it has hard as I could and put it on line."

Ramirez moved to second on that throw home and then to third when Lucroy singled to center. Harper kept Ramirez at third on the play with another strike to the plate. Ishikawa then grounded into a double play, started when second baseman Danny Espinosa made a slick backhanded flip to shortstop Ian Desmond, whose throw to first finished the play and inning -- keeping the Nationals on top.

Everything stayed the same until the ninth. Storen had pitched the last two nights, and Johnson thought Clippard was fresh, so he went to the right-hander. Clippard gave up three runs on four hits in just two-thirds of an inning and later stood in front of his locker trying to figure out what in the world's happening to him.

"That's the beauty of this game," he said. "You're constantly learning about yourself, and that's something that is going on with me right now. I'm trying to figure it out. I'm searching right now, so we'll get it figured out. I still am confident as heck. That hurt tonight. I'm not going to lie to you. It's not easy."

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