But so long as Drew Storen continues to pitch as he has the past two days, what could Soriano possibly do to push him aside? How could Williams, or anyone, watch Storen and think the Nationals would be better served with some other pitcher – especially one who recently endured a slump – closing games?
Monday night, Storen kept a 2-1 lead secure with exhilaration but no drama. He was exciting in a way Soriano is usually not, the good way. Storen’s performance Monday night came after a 1-2-3 save Sunday in which Storen struck out two hitters. Monday, he struck out all three hitters he faced – Chris Johnson with a change-up, Tommy La Stella with a slider and Andrelton Simmons with a fastball. He threw 19 pitches. Fourteen were strikes. The Braves swung at and missed five.
“It’s been fun,” Storen said. “Anytime you can throw the ninth inning, it’s quite the adrenaline rush.”
Williams offered no further hints about Storen cementing his closer status, but he didn’t have to. Storen’s performance has spoken for itself, and not just the past two days. Storen has simply been one of the best relievers in baseball this year. In 48 innings, Storen has a 1.31 ERA with 41 strikeouts, 11 walks and only two homers allowed.
There is only one sentiment against keeping Storen as the Nationals’ closer heading into the playoffs. It involves scars. Storen’s blown save in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS – the game that cost him the closer’s role in the first place – weighs heavily in some minds. Could Storen handle that same pressure? Could he face down the burden of the past?
Yes, he can. He is a different pitcher and a different person, shaped by what’s happened in his brief, rollercoaster career. He has saved 43 games at age 23. He underwent elbow surgery. He lost his job, imploded in a new role and got demoted. He remade himself as a pitcher at Class AAA, and since he returned to the majors he has dominated.
“I think all the experiences, the highs and lows, are important,” Storen said over the weekend. “It’s helped me do what I’ve done this year in the seventh. When you do different things in the bullpen, you get that experience. You can go out there and think you’re ready to throw the ninth. Unless you’ve done it before, that’s when it kind of matters.”
Storen has also become a different pitcher since the last time he closed. Storen introduced a change-up late last season, and this year he has thrown it twice as often, nearly 20 percent of his pitches. He can throw it to both right- and left-handed hitters, and it gives him an equalizer against hitters who lean over the plate expecting his slider.
“Any time you can go to three different pitches in a two-strike count, that helps,” Storen said. “Adding that change-up has been huge for me. I can throw it against righties and lefties. It’s really paid off for me recently.”
Storen can now throw a two-seam fastball that cuts to the right, a change-up that fades harder right at a slower speed and a slider that breaks hard to the left. His success this season is not a fluke. It’s a matter of his change-up becoming a weapon and improving his other pitches. And in the ninth, with adrenaline pumping, his stuff might be playing up.
“It has been his first two outings,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “The last two nights, he’s thrown the ball unbelievable. He’s got a little more moxie, using all his pitches more than he ever has. He’s pitching smarter, down in the zone. He’s more experienced. That’s just what it comes down to. He relishes the ninth. It’s been fun to watch.”
The only other argument against moving Soriano back to the ninth, assuming he regains his command and his slider, is how to use him otherwise. The Nationals have questioned how Soriano performs in non-save situations in the past. How would he react to a set-up role? This season, even through slumps, Soriano has been a professional. But the Nationals face the possibility of losing him altogether if they make him a set-up man.
They may have simply accept that, though. They have the depth – Matt Thornton and Aaron Barrett could handle the seventh-inning situations that Storen held down all season. That would leave Jerry Blevins and Craig Stammen to team up in the sixth if the Nationals’ starter falters. In an ideal world, Soriano would factor in. If he doesn’t, the Nationals can replace him.
In the end, it comes down to this: Storen is the Nationals’ best reliever, and having thrown a modest 48 innings, he’s still fresh enough to be throwing his best. Just a couple days ago, before Soriano’s meltdown Friday against the Phillies, it was fair to advocate Soriano keeping the job. Storen has provided new, compelling evidence. Right now, as the past two nights have shown, there is no pitcher better for the Nationals to entrust the ninth inning to than Storen.