At various points last season, Rafael Soriano and Drew Storen endured the worst struggles of their career. Soriano blew six saves and pitched one game with such lethargy that the bench coach, acting as manager, pulled him. Storen’s ERA rose to 5.95 and he earned a late-July demotion.
The closer who drew fan enmity all year and the set-up man who got sent to Class AAA have formed a dominant duo at the back end of the Nationals’ bullpen. In the first three weeks of this year, Storen and Soriano have been two of the brightest spots on the Nationals roster.
Storen has allowed one earned run in 7 1/3 innings while being employed in short, high-leverage bursts. In eight of his nine appearances, Storen has faced three or fewer batters. Having picked up where he left off in September, his stuff is as electric as ever. Monday night, he buckled Mike Trout’s knees with a slider that boomeranged over the inside corner. He’s struck out nine of the 23 batters he’s faced.
“I’m happy with where it’s at,” Storen said. “I’m happy with my change-up, my slider. It’s been moving quite a bit. I’m missing barrels and getting uncomfortable swings. Movement, velocity, whatever – if I’m getting soft contact, that’s the true tale.”
Manager Matt Williams has not given Storen a specific inning. He has utilized him as a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency set-up man. When Tyler Clippard put runners on second and third with one out against the Cardinals on Friday, Storen entered and cleaned up the mess, retiring Matt Holliday and Allen Craig in five pitches. “I’ve been in put in some really fun spots,” Storen said.
Could Storen’s dominant start, coupled with Tyler Clippard’s slump, lead to an enhanced role? Williams said he viewed Storen, Clippard and Soriano as “interchangeable” depending on workload and other factors.
“So, I expect Drew to be ready to pitch at any point,” Williams said. “He could pitch the seventh. He could pitch the eighth. He could close, if need be. Does it change roles? I think that’s yet to be determined. We’ll see how it all plays out. But he’s capable, sure. He’s pitched really well.”
Considering how Soriano has pitched, Storen probably will not be closing in the near future. Soriano has thrown eight scoreless innings without allowing a run, converted all four save chances and earned a win after a 1-2-3 ninth Sunday in a tie game against the Cardinals.
“I feel good now,” Soriano said. “I’ve got my slider back. I’m being more aggressive. A lot of being people be worried about me in spring training. It’s [expletive] spring training. I know what I do. That’s it.”
Last year, his outings were excruciating – he posted a 1.23 WHIP and struck out only 6.9 hitters per nine innings. This year, he’s allowed one walk and six hits while striking out 11.
The biggest difference for Soriano has been his resurgent slider. Last season, Soriano’s usage dropped from 40 percent in 2012 to 16.9 percent. In the second half, he essentially turned himself into a one-pitch pitcher.
This winter, Soriano lost 10 pounds, tinkered with new grips and watched video of himself throwing the slider. He has thrown in roughly one-quarter of his pitches. His fastball velocity has remained stagnant, but that may be because he has thrown more cutters. It may not be a faster pitch, but it is an angrier pitch.
“Last year, I don’t have like, when I had the hitter with two strikes, last year, I don’t feel like I wanted a strikeout,” Soriano said. “This year, I don’t know why, I feel like I wanted to do that. Last year, maybe I felt too comfortable. I’m not that kind guy. I want to go quick, and I want to strike out everybody. I don’t know why I’m different this year. Last year, to me, I don’t feel too comfortable about myself. I feel like I’m supposed to do a little bit more than I did last year. I feel like I want to be like I was in Atlanta, Tampa, Yankees. I want to feel the same. I don’t want to feel too comfortable. Everything is a little bit different this year.”
Both Soriano and Storen can say that everything is a little different this year.
“I’ve felt pretty steady, even keel,” Storen said. “I guess that’s confidence in this game. I feel happy with where I’m at. That’s the thing about relieving – it’s about being consistent. I’m happy with how it’s started. You just got to keep it going.”