Davey Johnson had it planned out. Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano had each pitched three days in a row. Drew Storen had been lights out since he returned from his refresher course at Class AAA. It made perfect sense: If the Nationals needed a closer Friday night, Storen would receive the chance.
For the Nationals these days, nothing is cut-and-dried in the ninth inning. Storen faced two batters before Johnson yanked him and inserted Soriano. The decision led to apparent tensions between Johnson and Storen and a near-disaster in the ninth inning as Soriano again allowed no shortage of loud contact.
The Nationals still won, 11-10, and Soriano recorded his 33rd save. The bottom line belied how much trouble the Nationals have had lately in getting the final three outs. Soriano has been a mess, and Johnson showed an odd lack of faith in Storen.
The ninth inning started how Johnson envisioned. With the Nationals holding a four-run, he called on Storen. Storen threw Alex Gordon a 1-1 curve before he walked him. Johnson fumed about Storen’s approach.
“With a four-run lead, go right after him,” Johnson said. “Make him hit it. Go right after him.”
Storen then started Eric Hosmer with three straight balls. Johnson decided he would get Soriano warm in the bullpen. Soriano had told pitching coach Steve McCatty he felt able to throw a fourth straight day, and Johnson was weary of Storen. Hosmer roped a double, and Johnson came out to take the ball from Storen.
“He should have just made him hit it,” Johnson said. “I’d have left him out there if he made him hit it.”
As Johnson trudged to the mound, Storen glowered at him. It was hard to blame Storen. Before Friday night, he had retired 15 out of 16 hitters since returning from the minors. At the very first sign of trouble in a crucial spot, Johnson abandoned him. Johnson insisted it was Storen’s approach, and his approach, that got him upset.
“Storen can be mad at me, but he should mad at himself,” Jonson said. “I don’t want to take a chance. I want somebody that will make them hit the ball. He got serious after he went 3-0. But that’s a little bit late.”
The problem is, calling for Soriano lately is taking a chance. He fired chest-high fastball and limp sliders. After Sal Perez grounded to Ian Desmond for the first out, Soriano allowed two hard-hit singles, and the Royals had pulled to within 11-10.
Soriano eventually escaped, but he had done little to inspire confidence. Since the all-star break, Soriano has allowed runs in seven of 16 appearances. Opponents are 10 for their last 25 against him. He cannot keep his pitches out of the upper edge of the strike zone, and his slider lacks bite.
“I’m concerned about him,” Johnson said.