After his injury, reliever fine with being setup man
A year ago, Nationals reliever Drew Storen grew accustomed to the role he no longer has.
At age 23 he was named the team's closer, and by the time he turned 24 in August he appeared to be a grizzled veteran. At the end of the season, Storen had 43 saves and a 2.75 ERA and was the anchor of one of the game's best bullpens.
But things turned sour from the start in 2012 when elbow pain began bothering him in spring training. By early April it was decided surgery was the proper course of action, and Storen did not pitch in a big league game until July 19. While he was gone, good friend and roommate Tyler Clippard inherited the closer's role and has yet to give it up.
"This is not diminishing how good I like Drew," Washington manager Davey Johnson said. "It's just that we got another guy that's doing a great job, too."
It could have made for some awkward tension -- except Storen also understands the myth that surrounds closers. While baseball managers almost exclusively use them to pitch in the ninth inning, games are sometimes won and lost long before their supposed best relief pitcher even jogs out of the bullpen.
It happened last Wednesday night in Miami when Storen, now in a quasi-setup role, came into the game with his team up 6-4, Marlins runners on second and third and no outs. The heart of the order was up. The Nats were desperate to snap a five-game losing streak. A reliever can dream up all the frightening ninth-inning scenarios possible, and few would have this degree of difficulty. Closers often enter with a fresh inning and no one on base.
Storen immediately got slugger Carlos Lee to line out to shallow center and then struck out Giancarlo Stanton, one of the most feared sluggers in baseball. When Justin Ruggiano grounded out to third, the Nats reacted as if they had won the game. And in a way they had. By the time Clippard came in, his team had expanded its lead to 8-4. The bottom of Miami's order went meekly in the ninth.
"You look at a lot of our situations last year, a lot of my saves should have gone to [Clippard]," Storen said. "Because he was coming into situations just like that and he would essentially lock down the game and then I kind of just put the icing on it. That's kind of just how it was."
Storen says he has made a conscious effort to do less on the mound since returning from surgery. Increased velocity on a fastball is fine, but it took a few weeks to learn to command that pitch again. In his first nine appearances in August, Storen walked seven batters. He hasn't walked anyone in his last six games entering Wednesday's contest against the Chicago Cubs -- though he did allow two hits and the eventual game-winning run in a 10-9 loss to St. Louis on Saturday.
"It's kind of an ongoing battle, and every time I'm out there I feel like I take a step forward," Storen said.