Drew Storen was one out and one strike away from sending the Washington Nationals on to the NLCS when it all went wrong for the Nats' '09 1st Round pick against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Drew Storen stood there and took it, answered every question. Perhaps his responses were more curt than usual, but the lights were brighter than usual too. Storen had just given up three hits, two walks, four runs, the lead and put Washington down 9-7 at the end of a 33-pitch, 18-strike top of the ninth inning in which two of the hits, the two walks and all four of the runs came with two outs. Storen summed up his struggles and his blown save in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS with St. Louis pretty simply. The 25-year-old, '09 1st Round pick said that everything was working fine for him on the mound in Nationals Park, "I just didn't execute."
Carlos Beltran doubled to start the inning, took third on a groundout and watched as Storen loaded the bases with back-to-back two-out walks to Yadier Molina and David Freese. Daniel Descalso jumped on the first pitch he saw from the Nats' closer in the at bat that followed and sent a hard-hit grounder back up the middle and off a diving Ian Desmond's glove. Two runs scored. 7-7. Pete Kozma stepped in next with the game tied and hit a 2-2 pitch to right to give St. Louis the lead. 9-7 Cardinals.
Down the hall from the clubhouse where Storen met with the press, Davey Johnson talked to reporters in the postgame press conference. The 69-year-old Nationals' manager said he thought, "[Storen] ... felt like he was making good pitches, but they were missing. I think he just tried to be too fine. He's got a great-moving live fastball. Just need to throw it over."
"I mean the guys did what they had to do to get to your closer," Johnson said, "a couple-run lead, and you know the tying run is up, got two outs. You know, got to make'em earn it, and unfortunately they did. You learn from it."
"Eventually I'm sure it will be a learning process," Storen said, but not yet, "Gotta let that wound heal I guess, first."
"With all the adversity we've gone through this year," Davey Johnson said, "and then to give up that many free passes, you know, that's not the way you win ballgames. It's a tough -- we've had a great year overcoming a lot of hardship, and to not go after them at the end was not fun to watch."
"The amount of adversity that we dealt with this year," Storen said, "To kind of have it come down to that is pretty tough." He'd gotten within one strike of ending it twice before giving up the lead and once before he gave up two more runs to the Cardinals. "I made good pitches," Storen told reporters, "Can't really... wouldn't change a thing. I have no regrets."
Gio Gonzalez, who gave up seven walks, one hit and two runs in 5.0 innings in a 3-2 win in Game 1 of the NLDS told reporters when discussing that start that he thought he'd done enough to keep his team in the game. "I gave them five good innings and I gave them two earned runs," Gonzalez said, "All said and done, with all that damage, you look at it for what it was, kept the team in the game."
The 27-year-old lefty said much the same after Game 5. "'I left winning, that's all that matters,'" Gonzalez told reporters including MLB.com's Mike Fiammetta, "'Gave the team a chance, and that's what they wanted out of me. I think we all battled, we all gave it all we had. We left it all on the field.'"
Talking to Washington Post writer Adam Kilgore, Davey Johnson said it didn't matter to him if people questioned his decision-making in the 9th inning Friday night. "Any manager in baseball, they will tell you," Johnson told the WaPost's Nats beat writer, "if you can get to your closer with a lead, you’ve done good. I don’t give a rat’s [behind] what anybody else thinks. If it’s a one-run lead, a two-run lead, you did it."
As for the criticisms thrown his way for his handling of the ninth, Davey Johnson responded in the WaPost article saying he'd considered walking Pete Kozma to load the bases with the pitcher (Jason Motte) due up and only one Cardinal (backup backstop Tony Cruz) on the bench, but as the Nats' skipper explained it in the Washington Post piece, he didn't like the idea of walking the bases loaded and letting the go-ahead run come in on a bases-loaded walk. "'Here’s my closer,'" Johnson says, "'who’s death on right-handers, and he’s got a base open. He didn’t execute.'"
In his final estimation, the Nationals' manager said he could have walked Kozma:
"You load the bases, you get their closer out. But you also make him have to make sure he doesn’t walk [Cruz]. The only lack-of-experience thing was being too cautious with the catcher and Freese. That’s where we lost the game.'"
Over the course of his three seasons in the majors, Storen's held RHB to a .210/.282/.329 line, and this season, which began late because he had elbow surgery, the right-hander had held opposing right-handed hitters to a .164/.253/.164 line in 34 games and 75 PAs. In the last month of the season, Storen posted a 1.17 ERA (2 ER in 15.1 IP) and a 1.27 FIP, walking no one and striking out 14 (8.22 K/9) in his final 17 appearances. On the strength of those outings, and in part because Tyler Clippard struggled down the stretch, with an 8.10 ERA, 4.59 FIP, 3 BB (2.03 BB/9), 14 Ks (9.45 K/9) in 13.1 IP in Sept/Oct, Storen found himself in the closer's role again at the end of the season, after Clippard had filled in admirably with Storen out and even after he'd returned.
Johnson had hesistated at first to move Clippard out of the ninth inning role, but his struggles down the stretch forced the manager's hand. Clippard returned to the set-up role he'd functioned so well in during previous seasons, but even he gave up a run on a HR by Descalso in the eighth. The "insurance" run the Nationals added in the bottom of the eighth gave the Nats a 7-5 lead and for a moment gave them some breathing room against a Cardinals team that wouldn't quit. One more strike and one more out from Storen in the ninth and the Nats would have moved on. Storen didn't get that last out until after the Cards took the lead.
"It's the best job when you're good at it and it's the worst job when you fail," Storen told reporters after the game that night.