Johnson has eased Storen back into the bullpen in a non-closer’s role since he returned from elbow surgery on July 19, giving him an expedited refresher course in pitching the late innings and gauging how the reliever and his arm have responded. On Sunday, Johnson felt it was time to throw Storen back in to the ninth inning.
Storen allowed a single but sandwiched it between a strikeout and two groundouts to finish the Nationals’ 4-1 victory. He had 43 saves last season; Sunday’s was the first since last September.
“It was a lot of fun, especially pitching for a first-place team in that situation,” he said. “Doesn’t get much better than that.”
Storen’s pitches showed dramatic movement: He struck out Jose Reyes on four pitches with a dipping slider mixed in with a 94-mph fastball and less-used change-up. He induced a groundout from Carlos Lee with his new-and-improved sinker, a pitch he perfected during his rehab.
Storen showed confidence in his change-up again, tossing one to Greg Dobbs, but in the same at-bat he hung a slider that Dobbs smacked to right field for a single. Another sinker-induced groundout ended the inning and the game.
“He was a little amped up, to say the least,” Johnson said. “The crowd really had him going. . . . He tried to snap off a snapdragon that nobody could hit. But it was good to see him back out there and get that out of the way. That kind of completes the rehab.”
The larger implication of Storen’s progress is that he can now be used as an additional closer. Johnson likes to use an “A” and “B” closer, someone who can spell the other when overworked or matchups are better.
Closer Tyler Clippard pitched each of the past three days and though he told Johnson he felt fine before the game, the manager called on Storen for the ninth. “It’s a tremendous luxury,” Johnson said.
“It’s huge,” Storen added. “You look at any teams that won what we want to win in the past, that’s what you need. Not just Clip and me.”