Way past midnight, and Drew Storen just sat there, head buried in his hands, looking straight ahead into the nothingness of an offseason no one saw coming with two outs and two strikes on two different hitters in the ninth inning.
Where would he go? What would he do with his car, keep it here or drive it back to Brownsburg, Ind.?
“Haven’t really thought about it,” he said, pursing his lips. “Haven’t really thought about any of it.”
First, they hugged him — meaningful, pull-in embraces to show how much their pain was his pain. Steve McCatty, the pitching coach, put both his hands on Storen’s shoulders and looked into his eyes, told him how much he thinks of him.
Then came more keep-your-head-up encouragement — waves of people and words, passing by Storen’s corner cubicle on their way to the showers. He sat there in black Spandex tights, bath slippers and a gray undershirt, greeting everyone who cared to say anything before returning to a numb daze.
“I’ve been in the situation,” Tyler Clippard told him. Storen’s roommate and closest friend on the team, the guy he played leapfrog with as the Nats’ closer all season as Storen battled back from injury, sat inches from him, pulling his chair around to face him.
“I told him I do it all the time. You tend to put it all on your shoulders and think, ‘I lost the game for us.’ And he’s got to realize it’s not all on him. It’s a team game. There was five runs on the board when he took the mound. It’s going to take him a while, but you just got to know in your heart it’s not all on you. That’s what I told him.”
At 12:48, in the middle of the clubhouse, propped against the back of a leather couch, he faced a phalanx of cameras and recorders. One was a WUSA Channel 9 microphone, still wrapped in plastic to protect it from a champagne celebration that never came. Clear-plastic sheets that covered every inch of the room less than a half-hour ago were rolled up like blinds near the ceiling.
“Damn, they actually put down another rug with tape,” Mark DeRosa said, shaking his head. “Look at this.”
Adam LaRoche had said how crushed the Nationals were that it had happened to Storen — the most genuine, likable kid in the entire organization.
“Most disappointing thing is I let these guys down,” Storen said when he was relayed LaRoche’s words.
It’s often said, Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. No, really, in this case, losing a chance to go to the National League Championship Series that Storen had on his fingertips on five different two-strike, two-out counts in the ninth could not have happened to a nicer guy.
Which made it all the more devastating.
Someone tried to trumpet how this experience would only help down the road.
“Yeah, eventually, I’m sure it’ll be a learning process,” he said. “But gotta let that wound heal first.
“It’s the best job when you’re good at it,” he added. “It’s the worst job when you fail.”
“Drew, twice you were down to the last strike — you get overanxious a bit?” he was asked.
“No. I made good pitches. Can’t really change anything. No regrets.”
“Were you okay with the strike zone?”
One of the more thoughtful, expansive, media-savvy young players in the game – his father used to host a radio show — Storen was now on automatic pilot, still stunned beyond belief. The interview lasted all of 1 minute 45 seconds. No one had the heart to push him further.
By 12:50 he was back at his cubicle. Just sitting there, running his hands through his hair, over and over, looking at nothing. Gio Gonzalez came over and hugged him. Kurt Suzuki put his hand on his shoulder, consoling him more. LaRoche had told him not to worry. “I said, ‘Let this motivate you. You got some of the best stuff in the game. We wouldn’t be here without you.’ ”
At 12:56, General Manager Mike Rizzo talked with him, embraced him and talked more.
By 1 a.m., Storen reached up in his locker and dipped his thumb and forefinger into his metal Copenhagen chewing tobacco tin. He found a disposable cup for a spittoon between his feet, folded his right leg across his left knee and folded his arms. A couple minutes later, he began checking his text messages.
A minute later, it all seemed to really sink in. He put his head in his hands again, this time burying his his forehead in his palms, like a man in the throes of grief. He looked up and stared into space. More support came. Clippard again. Then Gio emerged from the showers and gripped Storen’s right shoulder, making sure he was okay.
After a while, as teammates, coaches, clubhouse personnel and media members came by to console or commiserate, it didn’t feel like the 25-year-old closer merely blew the biggest save opportunity of his career in Game 5 against the Cardinals; it felt like a memorial service, in which Storen had to act the part of the strong-willed survivor to comfort all the other mourners.
Ten more minutes went by. What could possibly be said to ease the pain of being within one strike of a league championship series? Nothing. Not now.
Storen had the scruff of a developing beard working, but it hardly concealed his youth. He still looked like a kid barely out of his teens back from an Alaskan backpacking trip he took in August.
He kept staring straight ahead, his left hand now cupping his mouth, deep in thought. He didn’t need another person in uniform to tell him life was going to be all right in that very moment; he needed a parent’s shoulder to sob on.
So many chances. If Yadier Molina and David Freese didn’t have such damn good eyes — if they hadn’t each taken five pitches to walk, the Nationals might be hosting the Giants on Sunday in Game 1 of the NLCS. If any one of 13 pitches became popouts or groundouts or strikeouts between his last two-strike count and Daniel Descals’s game-tying single, the Nats are golden, and Storen is mobbed on the mound amid a blast of sound.
Aw, hell with it, already.
At 1:14 he took his Copenhagen cans and put them away, finally making his way to the showers. About 10 minutes later, he put on his jeans, a gray T-shirt, a backward black baseball cap and zip-up black sweater. He slung his silver-tweed backpack over his shoulders and followed Clippard out for the final time in 2012.
Charlie Slowes, the team’s play-by-play radio announcer who the night before had enraptured Washington with his call of Jayson Werth’s series-tying, walk-off home run, shook Storen’s hand and wished him well.
“Thanks Charlie,” Storen said. “See you next year.”
It was 1:40 a.m. when he ducked under a sliding-metal partition, outside the ballpark, into a chilly October night, the last, cruelest night of the Nationals’ season.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
More on the Nationals:
Feinstein: It was a bad time to not play an ace
Gallery: Scenes from Game 5