Simmering resentment over the Nationals’ decision to replace Drew Storen with Rafael Soriano as closer surfaced Friday night after the Nationals optioned Storen to Class AAA Syracuse. The clubhouse fell quiet after the Nationals sent the former 10th overall pick and 43-save closer to the minors, trying to end his prolonged struggle to adapt to a new role in the wake of his infamous meltdown in Game 5 of last year’s NLDS.
“You basically send a guy a message this offseason for having one bad game – that he’s not the guy for the job,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “He’s only human. It’s going to get to anybody. … Eight months later, you get to a point where he’s struggling, and you turn the page on him and you send him down. It’s not necessarily turning the page on him, because I think he needs to regroup and get out of this environment and take a deep breath and re-gather himself. I just think it’s been handled very poorly.”
In what should have been a jubilant clubhouse following a walk-off victory, Clippard’s voice cracked as he spoke to a group of reporters. For the two years prior to this season, he roomed with Storen, his best friend on the team.
“It’s one of those things that I think was handled very poorly by the organization,” Clippard said.
Storen’s first trip to the minor leagues since the Nationals called him up in May 2010 represents a precipitous fall. In 2011, at age 23, Storen saved 43 games. Last year, he came back from elbow surgery and reclaimed his closer’s job from Clippard. He dominated down the stretch, only to squander a two-run lead as the St. Louis Cardinals four runs in the ninth inning of Game 5.
Now, with his ERA at 5.95 ERA, including an 11.00 ERA in July entering Friday, Storen will head to the minors. In a cruelly ironic twist, Syracuse is playing at Indianapolis, Storen’s home town.
“He just needs to get right mentally and mechanically, because I need him,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “It’s that simple. I don’t need him where he’s at where he at times fights the situation. He’s too important to this ballclub going forward. He just needs to get right. He gets it right, he’ll be back.”
Soriano has saved 25 games and has largely been reliable. Storen, meanwhile, never adjusted to the varying setup role Johnson gave him. Storen toggled between innings and situations. Johnson placed the fault for Storen’s rough season on him.
“I always try to put guys in situations that they can be successful and by and large, the opportunities that he had, he should’ve been more successful,” Johnson said. “I was able to pick and choose parts of the lineup that he should’ve been more successful. But he sometimes gets to overthinking his mechanics and getting too tight. He’s got a death grip on the ball. I think just that not closing and the uncertainty of what day he was gonna pitch got him just more analytical.”
In January, the Nationals signed Soriano to a two-year, $28 million contract. “By no means is the signing of Rafael Soriano based on one inning and one game at the end of the season,” General Manager Rizzo said at the time. After Storen’s demotion, it became clearer than ever that some teammates did not view the move in that light.
“I can understand, you know, after the devastation that happened last year, maybe trying to make a change and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to bring in somebody that we think can get it done in that big situation,’ ” Clippard said. “It’s just the wrong message to send, I think.”
Earlier in the day, in the first game of a doubleheader, Storen had pitched in a blowout with the flu, hours after Johnson had announced Storen was too sick to pitch. Storen allowed three earned runs with a 102-degree temperature, according to a tweet from his father, Mark Patrick.
Johnson said Storen “got feeling a little better” between the morning and the ninth inning, when the Nationals were desperate to conserve their bullpen. How much better remains unclear. According to multiple people familiar with the situation, Storen felt so sick he received an IV during the game’s early innings.
Storen was not available for comment. Rizzo waved at his hand at a reporter who approached for comment and walked away, out of the clubhouse.
Storen became the second seemingly established player to be sent to the minors this season. In early June, the Nationals optioned second baseman Danny Espinosa, who had been their starter for two-plus years, to Class AAA Syracuse.
Storen will try to rejuvenate a still-promising career in a way that at one time seemed unthinkable.
“He hasn’t had to deal with a lot of adversity,” Clippard said. “He came up and had unbelievable stuff. He had success right away. He came in last year, coming off of a surgery, and pitched huge games for us in a 98-win season. He picked me up when I was struggling in September. He picked our team up in the playoffs. He had one bad game. …
“It could have gone either way. I know the same message was sent to me. I’ve been through adversity in my career. So I know how to handle it. So this is a tough day. He’s going to be a part of this team for a long time, I hope. Because he’s good. And we need him. But if goes somewhere else, he’s going to be great for them. It’s one of those things that I think was handled very poorly by the organization. But at the same time, that’s the decision that was made. We have great guys in this locker room. We’re going to get it done. We’re going to make a playoff push at the end of the season. I have no doubt about that. But this is a tough day.”
Earlier in the day, Storen had pitched in a blowout with the flu, hours after Johnson had announced Storen was too sick to pitch. Storen allowed three earned runs in his team-leading 48th appearance.