Drew Storen had never in his pitching life experienced anything like this spring training. He would have bad games. Prolonged slumps and struggles and sleepless nights were for other pitchers. As his ERA rose and his status on the team came publicly into question, he didn’t know what to do. So he did everything.
Storen called the pitching coach from Indianapolis he’s known since he was 8 and chatted for hours. On Sunday evening, after two runs in one 1 1/3 innings left his spring ERA at 11.74, he stayed in the video room at Space Coast Stadium until 5:30 p.m. with veteran Chad Gaudin. He talked to veteran teammates and pitching coach Steve McCatty and watched film and wondered.
The best advice came from an older teammate: “Just throw.” Today, Storen reverted back to his mechanics from last season – a slide step with stiff front leg – and pitched a 1-2-3 inning against the Astros, a groundball sandwiched between two weak pop-ups. He fired only fastballs and almost only strikes.
“I needed that,” Storen said.
The Nationals, too, needed to see Storen pitch more like himself. Before today, the Nationals believed Storen would start the season in the major leagues, but they had not ruled out starting him in Class AAA Syracuse. The Nationals wanted Storen to offer at least a glimpse of what he did last season, when he had a 3.58 ERA over 54 games, fourth-most on the Nationals. Today, he did.
“Any progress he makes to get away from where he’s been the last couple weeks, he’ll be on our ball club,” Manager Jim Riggleman said. “He’s earned that. There’s some history there, a little track record. He came up and really did a good job for us last year. That’s the sample of work you draw from more than a few spring training outings. That confidence you show in somebody can’t waver that quickly.”
At the end of last season, Storen switched his delivery from his straight-legged slide step with a more pronounced leg kick. It worked, but when he arrived at spring training, he had trouble locating low strikes and putting movement on the ball. With Gaudin, he watched side-by-side screens of this year and last year. He could hardly believe the difference in movement.
The other day, Matt Stairs and Jayson Werth asked Storen, “What’d you with the slide step?” Both veterans – a lefty and a right-hander – told Storen the quirk helped separate him.
“They talked about how irritating it was to face them,” Storen said. “That’s priceless feedback that you don’t really get.”
This has been a challenging spring for Storen. He thinks about pitching constantly, and he worries if maybe he thinks about it too much. When he faced struggles for the first time, he had to learn how to correct them while hearing more pointed public criticism than he’d experienced. It was new. But he also realized, it was his job, his life.
“I’ve been kind of scrambling trying to figure out what I’ve been doing wrong,” Storen said. “I think that’s part of the learning experience this year. I hadn’t really had a hiccup like this in my life. At this level of competition last year, I had a good year and didn’t really have to re-evaluate myself. I had to learn, ‘Hey, how am I going to handle some struggles?’
“It’s the game of baseball. There are times it’s going to cut you down, it’s really going to test you. This spring has really been a big test for me. It’s been very frustrating. It’s one of those things, in the end, it’s going to make me better. I can’t just go out there and throw. I can’t just throw my glove out there and get guys out. That’s an important lesson to be learned.”