Drew Storen hasn’t been on the mound for the national anthem since he was in high school. On Thursday evening, he stood there at Class A Potomac’s field and then took the mound for his first minor-league rehab appearance of the season, a one-inning start against the Frederick Keys, readying himself for his upcoming return to major leagues.
Storen, who has yet to make his major league season debut because of elbow surgery, threw eight pitches, induced a popout in foul territory on the first pitch, a flyout and then a groundout. He was on a 25-pitch limit but he was efficient enough that he went to the bullpen after his inning to throw some more.
“It felt great,” he said. “No pain. Mechanics felt really good. The big thing for me wasn’t necessarily velocity or anything. I just wanted to down in the zone and sink my sinker and I thought I did a good job doing that. I was happy with how everything went. I think I was commanding the strike zone really well.”
“I know if that was my first appearance in spring training, I’d be very happy about it,” he added later.
In his first true game experience of the season, he consistently hit 92 mph on at least one radar gun behind home plate – a few ticks below his 95 mph average last season in which he saved 43 games. He mixed in offspeed pitches — sliders and a changeup — with success. The command of those will improve with more time, he said.
“If I can stay consistent and keep that command and all the positives I took out of today and stay with that, the velocity will take care of itself,” he said. “That’s not something I’m concerned with. That’ll come. That comes with arm strength. At this point, where I gain arm strength is throwing in games.”
Storen is expected to make three more rehab appearances, likely every other day and if his body feels good. His elbow doesn’t hurt and he used it fully on Wednesday. “I didn’t feel like I had to put any restraint on anything, and that’s a good thing,” he said.
The Nationals are targeting Storen’s return for the first game after the all-star break next week. When he does re-join the team, Storen will be eased back into the Nationals bullpen, which has Tyler Clippard entrenched as the closer and Sean Burnett as the setup man. Nationals Manager Davey Johnson reiterated on Wednesday that he wanted to see how Storen responded to pitching in the major leagues but not immediately as the closer. If he does well, Storen could give Clippard a day off in the ninth. Storen has taken the upcoming role change well but said again on that he believes he can close.
“I’m preparing to close regardless,” he said. “And I know, coming in, is to have me setup when I first get back. That needs to happen. It’s part of the acclimation process. It’s just a matter of getting your feet wet and each different level. … I gotta work my way back in that bullpen because those guys have been throwing there all year and know what they’re doing. There’s no room for error in that situation, especially with how well we’re playing. So I totally get it, 100 percent.”
Also rehabbing Thursday was infielder Chad Tracy, who has been on the disabled list since May 28 after undergoing surgery for a torn groin muscle. Tracy played his second straight game for Potomac, going 0 for 2. He was robbed of two hits by good catches by Keys outfielders, including a two-run home run in the first inning that was grabbed at the right field fence. Overall, Tracy is 0 for 5.
“I feel like I’m swinging it good,” he said. “I haven’t gotten any hits.”
Tracy had surgery five weeks ago and the original timetable had him returning in six to eight weeks. But he is progressing quickly and feels like he could help the Nationals with the bat off the bench now. It’s the running and fielding that need more time as he still doesn’t have full strength in his groin area. Tracy is expected return at the same time as Storen.
The left-handed batter was a vital pinch-hitter for the Nationals — going 6 for 18 and with nine RBI off the bench — and a late-game presence that Johnson covets.
“If I can come off the bench and give you a good at-bat up there, then that’s what I’m looking to get towards,” Tracy said. “To be able to leg out a double or score from second, that kind of thing. That’s more of what I’m looking for. Obviously, I’d like to get to where I’m 100 percent in the field and I don’t think about it, back to where I was. But at the same time, I want to get back to the big leagues and be able to help the team.”