"Drew Storen is a closer," Washington Nationals' General Manager Mike Rizzo told reporters this past January at a press conference introducing free agent closer Rafael Soriano to the nation's capital. Soriano had just inked a 2-year/$28M deal to take over that role with the Nats. [Storen's] going to be a closer. He's got closer stuff. He's got a closer's mentality. And by no means [was] the signing of Rafael Soriano based on one inning and one game at the end of the season. [Storen] is a young closer that was thrust into the closer's role as a very young man and a very young major leaguer. We feel that we benefit having [Soriano] on the club not only by pitching the ninth inning, but also by mentoring a good young potential closer in Drew Storen."
The "one inning and one game at the end of the season" was of course the ninth inning of Game 5 of the NLDS with the St. Louis Cardinals which saw Storen give up three hits, two walks and four runs in what was a 7-5 game in the Nationals' favor when he took the mound. Storen came within one strike of sending Washington to the NLCS but then things fell apart. The Cards ended up winning 9-7 and moving on while the Nationals, the nation's capital and Storen were left devastated.
The addition of Soriano this winter, the Nats' GM said at the time he was signed, would give the Nationals multiple options and a stronger bullpen overall. "We feel that we have multiple closers on this club," Rizzo said, "that have the ability to close out games. One of them is going to close out the seventh, one will close out the eighth and one will finish the game in the ninth and we feel pretty good about that."
That's how it would have worked in a perfect world at least. Instead, Storen struggled in his new role. In 47 games, including yesterday's disastrous 2/3 of an inning, three-hit, three-run outing against the Mets, Storen has put up a 5.95 ERA and a 4.16 FIP with seven home runs (1.49 HR/9) and 13 walks (2.76 BB/9) allowed and 43 Ks (9.14 K/9) collected in 42 1/3 IP. On Friday night, Storen was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse. At least one teammate, Tyler Clippard, thought that the signing of Soriano and the way the situation was handled played a big part in Storen's struggles.
"You basically send a guy a message this offseason," an emotional Clippard told reporters, "for having one bad game, that he's not the guy for the job. He's only human. I mean, it's going to get to anybody. Eight months later, you get to a point where he’s struggling, and you turn the page on him and you send him down. It’s not necessarily turning the page on him, because I think he needs to regroup and get out of this environment and take a deep breath and re-gather himself. I just think it’s been handled very poorly."
Nats' manager Davey Johnson spent the majority of his postgame press conference following the second game of the doubleheader and the Nationals' walk-off win over the Mets, discussing the decision to send Storen to Triple-A Syracuse. "He wants to work it out here," Johnson began, "and I understand that. He made some major changes. Even though he felt bad, he said he felt better doing it with the high leg kick and all that, but he just needs to get right mentally and mechanically because I need him. It's that simple. But I don't need him where he's at, where he kind of, at times fights the situation. And he's too important to this ballclub going forward. He needs to just get right and if he gets it right, he'll be back."
Johnson said the new role for Storen this season may have led to the issues the reliever has had trouble dealing with so far this season. "I think a lot of that -- and like I was telling you before... the role of closing, you know when you're going in," the manager explained. "When you're setting up, I had to explain it to him, you know, 'Right-handers, you get the right-handers. [Clippard] gets the left-handers in the set-up role.' I used him a lot because he wasn't as sharp as he was when he was closing, that he could work it out and I think I've used him more than anybody on the ballclub. More appearances anyway. But I definitely have to have him. He's a big weapon. And if he can get squared away I'll get him back."
"I always try to put guys in situations that they can be successful," Johnson said when asked if there was any way he could have handled the situation differently. "And by and large, the opportunities that he had, he should have been more successful. I was able to pick and choose parts of the lineup that he should have been more successful. But he sometimes gets to over-thinking his mechanics and getting too tight, you know, he's got a death-grip on the ball. And I think just that, not closing and any uncertainty of what day he was going to pitch or when he was going to pitch got him just more analytical."
Overall, as Johnson saw it, this is the first real adversity Storen, who was drafted and rose through the ranks quickly, has had to deal with early in his career. "He's never had failures," Johnson said, "never had to deal with failure. And this is kind of a sharp lesson up here dealing with failure. But I mean, we could have done different things with different players. But I think this is going to be best served for him, go down there and get it right and I'll get him back."
"This is what's best for him," Johnson concluded, "He'll probably have a hard time coming to grips with that, but it is the best thing for him."