LOUISVILLE — Drew Storen’s new life in the Washington Nationals’ organization began in earnest at 2:35 p.m. on an overcast Wednesday. A day earlier, he reported to the Class AAA Syracuse Chiefs, who were opening a four-game series against the Louisville Bats.
Wearing gray baseball pants and a dark gray shirt with black sleeves, Storen warmed up by jogging to center field and back and stretching in right field, hours before the day’s doubleheader. A few minutes later, Syracuse pitching coach Greg Booker and roving minor league pitching coordinator Spin Williams took their places to watch Storen throw.
Storen had spent the previous few days recovering from the flu and considering all that had led him here, to a bullpen mound at Louisville Slugger Field: an offseason during which he was replaced as closer by Rafael Soriano, inconsistent performances resulting in a 5.95 ERA in 47 games, pitching last Friday with a 102-degree fever, getting demoted later that night and watching close friend and teammate Tyler Clippard rip their organization for its treatment of him.
Storen preferred to leave all of that in the past. The 25-year-old’s future started here, with the Chiefs.
“You get another opportunity to get back to being yourself,” he said, sitting in the visitors’ dugout while his new teammates took batting practice and infield. “It’s not ideal, but you make the most of the situation and come back and be the guy I’m supposed to be.”
Two years ago, Storen was one of the most promising young relievers in baseball, saving 43 games for the Nationals in 2011 in just his second major league season. Last season, he returned from elbow surgery, reclaimed his closer’s role and was on the mound for the crushing top of the ninth in the Nationals’ decisive division series loss against the St. Louis Cardinals. From that moment on, his career path has been anything but smooth.
“After last season, with adversity, you either fold and feel sorry for yourself or get better,” he said. “You get through this stuff and come out of the other side it makes it that much better. I planned to deal with only so much adversity this year but got a little bit more than I ordered.”
This season was the first in Storen’s career that he has encountered sustained struggles. He was the 10th overall pick in 2009 and signed quickly because he wanted to reach the majors soon. By 23, he was the Nationals’ closer. So when he was inconsistent this season, he worked harder. During one stretch from late May through June, he didn’t allow an earned run in 16 of 17 appearances; then in July, he posted a 13.03 ERA.
“Working harder is not always working smarter,” Storen said. “It was tough. I thought I could get through it.”
The road back starts with a return to fundamentals. Storen began using a stiff-hip throwing motion in 2011 spring training when teammate Matt Stairs told him it added a layer of deception to his delivery. Storen succeeded with it, saving 43 games in 48 tries and posting a 2.75 ERA that season. He stuck with it last year and punched up a 2.37 ERA after missing the first half of the season following surgery in April to remove a bone chip in his right elbow.
But this season, Storen was worrying more about mechanics than pitching. So he told Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty last week that he wanted to return to his high leg kick delivery, and coaches agreed.
“I’m not a big guy,” Storen said. “I don’t have a lot to put behind the ball. It’s important for me to be athletic. I wasn’t really throwing as athletically as I should.”
Williams, who was brought in this week to work with Storen, watched the reliever throw his bullpen session Wednesday and was pleased. He interjected at times, as did Booker. Williams found Storen receptive, focused and positive.
“The biggest thing that he has to do is that he has to quicken himself up to the plate and quicken his game tempo up,” Williams said. “And get a consistent delivery so he can have a consistent release point and throw the ball down in zone like he did when he was successful.”
When Storen first arrived in Louisville, Syracuse Manager Tony Beasley didn’t want to approach him, hoping to give him space as he adjusts to his new surroundings. Like Williams, Beasley was immediately encouraged by what he saw: Storen was at the stadium Tuesday already working with Williams.
“His demeanor was good,” Beasley said. “He wasn’t moping or sobbing or complaining. He was talking about what he has to do to get back to the major leagues. That’s No. 1. Once you see that, that’s good. You know the guy is on board with doing his job and getting back. He’s come to terms with whatever reason he’s not there.”
The night Storen was optioned to Syracuse, his former roommate Clippard blasted the Nationals’ organization for its handling of the situation, saying the signing of Soriano sent Storen the wrong message. Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, who has said throughout that the signing of Soriano was about improving the team and not punishing Storen, said he talked with Clippard and Storen after the reliever’s demotion.
Nationals Manager Davey Johnson has blamed himself for the way he has handled the bullpen this season, and Storen’s role was never consistent: from setup man to facing only right-handed batters from the seventh inning to the eighth. Storen admits it was a tough task, but he has done it before in his career.
“I wouldn’t say that affected my performance,” Storen said of the Soriano signing. “You go out regardless of whatever happens in the offseason. I’m extremely competitive and very much a perfectionist in that I always want to get better and I always want to have a way better season than I did before. That’s part of my fuel and part of my drive.”
Storen did say that Clippard speaking up was the silver lining of a tough day for him. “Regardless of the content, it just shows you what a great friend and teammate he is to stand up for me,” Storen said. “That really meant a lot to me.”
Storen politely declined to speak specifically about being demoted on the same day he pitched with a fever in a mop-up situation to help a depleted bullpen. Instead he remains earnest about wanting to keep his focus on the future.
“It doesn’t do you any good to sit back and look at any of that stuff,” he said. “. . . I can’t change what’s happened this year. But what I can control is what’s going forward. To sit around and kinda dwell on all that stuff. Why did this happen? Why did that happen? It doesn’t do you any good.”