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Drew Storen showing consistency, ready to lighten Tyler Clippard’s load

At times, since his return from the disabled list a month ago, Nationals reliever Drew Storen has alternated between strong outing and laborious one. But over the last four appearances, including a critical three outs in a scoreless eighth inning on Wednesday night, Storen has found a groove. He feels physically as good as ever, his stuff has returned and his command improved.

His continued progress is another sign that he will help ease the workload of closer Tyler Clippard. There’s no mistaking: Johnson still believes that Clippard is the team’s closer. But if he has pitched too much on back-to-back games, Johnson feels Storen is ready to spell him there. Or, maybe, more.

“I still look at him as a closer,” Johnson said of Storen. “It’s hard to get off Clip. Clip has been almost perfect. But I don’t have to abuse Clip at this point. I’ve liked where Storen has been at the last two, three times out. So I think he’s all the way back obviously. ….

“This is not diminishing how good I like Drew. It’s just that I got another guy that is doing a great job, too. There may be have a couple back-to-back situations for Clip and I like the way the lineup comes up for Drew. His tongue may not be hanging out when I let Storen close for me.”

Clippard has been stellar, and despite a small rough patch, has 28 saves in 32 opportunities. But he has appeared in 60 games, tied for the 16th most among major league relievers. Last year, Storen saved 43 games for the Nationals. But since his return, he has been eased back into the bullpen almost like a setup man. Only three times in 20 appearances this season, Storen has pitched in the ninth inning, one of them a save situation.

And even though it was the eighth inning on Wednesday, Johnson summoned Storen to face the heart of the Marlins order to get three outs with two runners on base and no outs. Following the game, Storen said the situation felt “comfortable” regardless if it wasn’t the ninth inning.

“If you look at a lot of the situations last year, a lot of my saves should have gone to Clip because he was coming in situations like that and he essentially would lock down the game and I would put the icing on it,” Storen said. “… A lot of times the save is not in the ninth, it was before.”

Over his last four appearances spanning 3 2/3 innings, Storen hasn’t allowed a hit or a run and walked no hitters. In fact, he hasn’t allowed a run in six appearances. On Wednesday night, Storen said the most positive outcome was his ability to not get “over-amped” or “over-do” it, an easy trap for a pitcher eager to return to previous form.

“I think it’d be easy maybe earlier when I first came back, I probably would have tried to do a little too much,” he said. “So for me to kind of stay the course on that outing is kind of the most important thing. I wasn’t going out there trying to throw 100. I was trying to go out there and pitch to the situation now that my stuff is back.”

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