The Drew Storen mess is the latest how-much-worse-can-this-season-get embarrassment for the Washington Nationals. It figured there would be fallout after the popular reliever’s demotion to the minor leagues last week, and the harshest criticism of team management has come from within the Nationals’ clubhouse. Amid the finger-pointing, it seems the person most responsible has escaped blame: Storen.
The Nationals didn’t demote a lights-out reliever on a whim. They sent away a struggling former closer who could no longer be trusted to preserve leads. You can’t have a 13.03 ERA in July and expect to stay on the 25-man roster. The Nationals want Storen to work on improving his pitching mechanics. It’s more important for him to get his head straightened out.
For closers, it’s great to be able to throw 98-mph fastballs and knee-buckling off-speed stuff. But the ability to move on quickly from your previous outing is a closer’s most essential trait. Unfortunately for Storen and the Nationals, Storen is stuck in the past.
Fact is, Storen hasn’t rebounded from his ninth-inning meltdown in Game 5 of last season’s National League Division Series. Storen entered with the Nationals leading the St. Louis Cardinals, 7-5, at Nationals Park. Two walks, three hits and four earned runs later, Storen and his teammates walked off the field trailing by two runs. Washington wound up losing, 9-7, after twice being within a strike of clinching.
That’s about as bad as it gets for a closer. Storen was entitled to some time to recover. The mourning period, however, should have ended the moment Storen walked out of the clubhouse that night in October.
Consistent closers are able to flip a switch after blown saves and record 1-2-3 innings their next time on the mound. It’s a lot like playing cornerback in football. Even if the good ones get burned for a touchdown, they believe they’ll intercept a pass on the next series.
In becoming the game’s career saves leader, New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has benefitted as much from having a short memory as he has from his overpowering cut-fastball. Like all closers, the future Hall of Famer has failed on the job — including on baseball’s biggest stage — but Rivera always comes back strong. In 2001, the Arizona Diamondbacks rallied against Rivera in Game 7 to win the World Series. Since then, Rivera has recorded 426 saves in the regular season entering Wednesday’s play.
Some critics contend Storen still would have been fine in the closer’s role — but management unfairly stripped him of it. Reliever Tyler Clippard has been the loudest on the subject.
After his friend was sent down to Class AAA Syracuse, Clippard blasted management for its handling of Storen, who was bumped to a setup job after the Nationals signed Rafael Soriano. “You basically send a guy a message this offseason for having one bad game — that he’s not the guy for the job,” Clippard said.
Clippard is the anchor of the Nationals’ bullpen and a clubhouse leader. He’s entitled to his opinion, which carries weight in the organization. Storen, though, didn’t merely have one bad game. He failed with the Nationals needing three outs to advance to the National League Championship Series.
Storen had 43 saves in just his second season in the big leagues in 2011. But with the Nationals expected to make a World Series run this season (that seems so strange to type now), management decided to bring in Soriano. Twice Soriano has saved at least 42 games. The 12-year veteran has given up just three hits and one earned run in his last nine postseason innings.
Facing big expectations entering a season for the first time, the Lerners, General Manager Mike Rizzo and Manager Davey Johnson were more comfortable with a more proven closer. The signing of Soriano was a sound baseball decision and really the only major offseason move that has worked out well for the Nationals: Soriano has 26 saves in 30 chances. And ask yourself this: How awful would the Nationals be if Storen remained as the closer and struggled as badly as he has all season?
Soriano was a luxury the Nationals did not need, Storen’s supporters say, and his signing was a blow to Storen’s confidence. Although Clippard had 32 saves while filling in for the injured Storen last season, he had pitched so many innings over the past three seasons — 252 innings in 224 appearances — you had to wonder whether the high workload would affect his performance this season. As it turned out, Clippard has been sensational while also being bumped further down the bullpen ladder.
Again, though, the Nationals were all about the World Series in 2013. Banking on Clippard to step in if Storen flopped would have been an unnecessary risk with Soriano available and the Lerners willing to spend in an attempt to win it all.
And as for how Soriano’s presence may have affected Storen emotionally, well, welcome to the world of winning baseball. After a 98-victory season in 2012, the stakes are higher for the Nationals. Their fans expect them to win. If Storen doesn’t possess the mental toughness to overcome competition and deliver under pressure, the Nationals are better off finding that out as soon as possible.
At 25, Storen has time to revive his career. But Nationals management shouldn’t be blamed for what has happened to Storen. That’s all on the guy he sees looking back at him in the mirror.
For more by Jason Reid, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.