Could Drew Storen become the Nationals closer in the playoffs?

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

On June 23, in Baltimore, Manager Davey Johnson was forced into a conclusion regarding the role of Tyler Clippard. In 13 1/3 innings as the closer, Clippard had allowed one hit, no runs and struck out 13. “The way he’s going I can’t see going to somebody else,” Johnson said then. The Nationals had not wanted to give Drew Storen’s old job to Clippard, but he took it. His performance decided for them.

Last night, with Clippard in need of rest, Storen took the mound for the ninth inning. His performance, with the playoffs looming, may have forced Johnson and the Nationals into another decision. Closing out the clincher, Storen struck out the fearsome middle of the Dodgers’ lineup — Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez — on 13 pitches. He hit 97 mph with his sinker and chucked disappearing sliders. It was a powerhouse inning.

“I just think, kind of harnessing the adrenaline,” Storen said. “Just facing those three hitters, you’re going to be fired up to go. The crowd was into it from the get-go. I came out of the gate down there, it was cool. I just kind of told myself, ‘Don’t get too antsy here. Just nice and easy.’ I used my [bullpen coach] Jimmy Lett wisdom.”

The idea of moving Storen back to the ninth inning is not merely a reaction to recent performance. (If that was the case, we would mention Christian Garcia as a candidate, because wow.) Storen saved 43 games last year and became one of the elite closers in the game. As last night hammered home, Storen has come out the other side of his elbow surgery still an elite closer, perhaps even better. His slider is deeper and tighter. His slowed-down delivery is even more deceptive.

“I feel physically better than I ever have before,” Storen said. “I feel like my stuff is better than it was last year. When you go in and have those operations, you never really know how it’s going to turn out. Fortunately for me, I got taken care of really well.”

Broaching the idea of moving Storen to closer reads like a repudiation of Clippard. It’s not. He has a 4.85 ERA since the all-star break, but he’s still capable. He earned the job, and he did it well. He started closing in late May and still ranks sixth in the National League with 32 saves.

But the move would make the Nationals’ bullpen strong in two areas. It would place Storen back in the ninth inning, where he pitches like a different animal. Last night, he pogo-sticked between pitches and still managed to harness his adrenaline. In 7 2/3 innings when pitching in the ninth inning or later, Storen has allowed zero runs while striking out nine, walking one and allowing two hits. He was the closer before he got hurt, and now he’s healthy.

“Drew’s a big-game pitcher,” right fielder Jayson Werth said.

With Storen in the ninth, the Nationals could move Clippard back to setup, the role he is best-suited for. There is a reason Davey Johnson initially chose Brad Lidge and Henry Rodriguez in the ninth inning, even if Clippard had a more recent successful track record than both, even if he was flat out better. As a setup man, Clippard is a weapon, capable on his best days of picking up for the starter and carrying the game all the way to the closer. There is also a reason Clippard set up and Storen closed last year, when the Nationals’ bullpen was at is best.  

Last night, Johnson called Storen’s playoff-clinching save “fairy-tale.” He carried the load last year, then had to watch for three months and then work his back into the mix. “It’s been a rough year for him not closing,” Johnson said. In the postseason, he could find himself back in the role he loves most.  

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