What a difference a day makes.
Tyler Clippard was one outing away from being sent down from the Trenton Thunder after a horrendous start to the season. That type of move could have harmed his confidence and sidetracked his career for years. Instead, one start wound up cementing Clippard as one of the top prospects in the New York Yankees' farm system.
Clippard tossed a no-hitter against the Harrisburg Senators on Aug. 17, culminating a midseason turnaround for the 21-year-old right-hander and earning him MiLB.com's Double-A Single-Game Performance of the Year Award.
The way Clippard started the season, one wouldn't have expected him to last through August with the Thunder. After quickly ascending the ladder in the Yankees' system in his first three years, he slumped badly in the first half of the 2006 season, going 2-9 with a 5.66 ERA.
An offseason injury may have been the root of the Florida native's problems.
"I dislocated my left knee in late January and it took me about six weeks to come back from that," Clippard said. "Everybody had started throwing and was on the mound, while I was about three to four weeks behind everyone else. I was still trying to get a feel from everything, and then I had to adjust to the (new) level and better hitters."
The injury robbed Clippard of any consistency in his delivery, and it took more than two months of work with Thunder pitching coach Dave Eiland in the bullpen and the video room to rediscover his old form. Once Clippard did that, he was nearly unstoppable, going 10-1 over his last 15 starts, including nine straight wins to finish the year. But none were telling of his comeback than the one on Aug. 17.
Clippard said he didn't sense anything unusual about that day and his pregame bullpen session wasn't remarkable. He nearly lost the no-hitter against the second batter of the game when Kory Casto redirected a pitch to deep right field that looked like it would leave the park. Thankfully for the Thunder, the ball died on the warning track and fell safely into the glove of Matt Carson.
The first five innings went smoothly for Clippard as he retired 17 of the first 18 batters, yielding just a two-out walk in the second to Josh Whitesell. He got two quick outs to start the sixth but found himself in a jam after walking the bases loaded. Earlier in the year, Clippard might not have made it out of the inning, but Eiland knew his young charge had turned that corner.
"'Clip' was by far the most improved guy this year," the former 10-year big league veteran said. "Earlier in the season when he'd be in a jam, all he would do is try to make perfect pitches with his fastball and bad things would happen."
Not this time.
Clippard got Prentice Redman to fly out to center field for the third out. That's when the speculation started.
"When he got out of that (jam), I pulled over our manager, Billy Masse, and said, 'It's meant to be now. I don't think he's going to be denied,'" Eiland said.
And he was right. That was the closest the Senators got to scoring off Clippard, who tossed a perfect eighth before beginning a pressure-filled ninth. Once again, it was Casto who provided the drama. Leading off the ninth, Casto hit a flare to left-center that looked like it might fall in.
"The heart definitely jumped in my throat a bit on that one," the former 2003 ninth-round pick said. "I knew the ball was hit well, that he put some good wood on it, but I also knew who we had in center field (speedster Brett Gardner), so I knew he had a shot to catch it."
Gardner made a diving grab to keep the no-no intact. And Clippard capped the game by getting pinch hitter Richard Lane on a called third strike, giving the young right-hander the Minor League's first nine-inning, complete-game no-hitter of the year.
It was the second time this year that Harrisburg struggled against Clippard. On July 4, he tossed eight scoreless innings against the Senators in Trenton, striking out a season-high 11 batters while giving up just one hit -- a measly leadoff single in the first. Clippard said he is prouder of what he accomplished in August because it came to symbolize the growth he had this season.
"I had tremendous stuff (back in July)," Clippard said. "But on my no-hitter, I was able to battle for that game and I had to be a better pitcher so I wouldn't give up a hit.
"It just was a great feeling how I turned around my whole season, and I think that was a capoff from everything that I had fought through this year."