“I’m excited for the new challenge,” Storen said in a phone interview with the Post on Saturday night. “The [American League] is a different game. I’m not going to be seeing a pinch hitter late in game; I’m going to be seeing a DH. That’s going to be a good challenge for me. It’s going to force me to get better.”
Storen had been with the Nationals since 2009, when he was drafted 10th overall out of Stanford, the same year as Stephen Strasburg. He was in the majors the following year and saved 43 games in 2011. He was on the mound during the heart-breaking blown save in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS.
He was demoted to a set-up role in 2013, struggled and was sent to the minors. He returned better than before, regained the closer’s role in 2014 but again had a playoff hiccup. Despite an all-star level first half in 2015, the Nationals wanted bullpen help and a proven postseason closer so they acquired Jonathan Papelbon. Privately, Storen wanted a trade after the Papelbon addition. On Friday, the Nationals finally found a match for their outfield need.
Storen is one of many homegrown players that won’t be on the Nationals next season. Fans know teams can’t stay intact forever, but it will be jarring to see Storen, Craig Stammen, Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Desmond — plus other recent mainstays like Denard Span — in other uniforms in 2016.
“Every year, it kinda got stranger and stranger,” Storen said. “Last year, not having [Tyler Clippard] there. I kept saying in spring that I just kept waiting for him to show up in typical Clip fashion. It’s kind of the nature of the business but that’s just part of it. It’s going to be very strange to watch the Nationals play. It’s already weird enough for me now seeing the Photoshops on the internet with me with Blue Jays stuff on. It’s just one of those things that probably won’t sink in until I go to spring training and see my locker with my jersey and my name.”
Storen leaves the organization as second in team history in saves (95), relief appearances (355) and reliever strikeouts (321), and first in old payphone covers bought for the bullpen phone (1). Asked for his best memories about Washington, Storen focused on the people.
“All of the division titles and this and that were wonderful and great,” he said. “It’s tough to put into words what it meant. But what meant a lot for me were the guys. The guys in the clubhouse from Day 1. When I was a rookie, all the older veteran guys treated me very well and helped me become who I am. I’ve had my ups and downs. Those guys were always there and they had my back. They’re friends for life. I’ll keep those personal relationships.”
Soon after Papelbon was acquired, Storen struggled. His ERA shot up from sub-2.00 to 3.44 by the end of the season, struggling in key games against the Mets and eventually breaking his thumb when he hit his hand against a locker.
“It’s easy to draw a conclusion to think there was some anger or whatnot from [the Papelbon trade],” he said during an earlier conference call with Toronto reporters. “It was far from that. For me, I think it was just a workload situation. You go in to close, and you know when you’re going to throw and you’re not getting up and sitting down as much. Going into the setup role, we were playing entire games in more or less must-win games. I was up quite a bit. I was throwing a lot. When you’re throwing late in the game, your room for error is very small. Your velocity might be the same but the ball might not cut as much, sink as much, or you’re going to miss the location by an inch. I think for me that was the biggest thing.”
A new chapter in Toronto may be best for Storen, whose relationship with the Nationals frayed twice, with the loss of the closer’s role twice thanks to the additions of Rafael Soriano and Papelbon. He said he hasn’t yet been told what his role will be in Toronto. Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins wouldn’t commit Saturday to either incumbent Roberto Osuna or Storen as closer.
“It’s something for me that’s not all that important,” Storen said. “I’ve dealt with [role uncertainty] before. No matter what, any of those last nine outs are important. Whatever they want me to do, I’m just going to go out there and do my job. I’m excited to join the team and join the guys and really work towards a championship.”
Storen said he was appreciative of Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo for sending him to a team where he still has a chance to pitch in late-game meaningful innings. Despite the twice-changed roles and tension, Storen was grateful for Rizzo, and told him so during their late Friday phone call about the trade.
“The thing that I appreciate with Mike is that he and I have always had that relationship where we can sit down and talk about things,” Storen said. “A lot of things, especially in this game, can be lost in translation. But whenever something came up, we were able to sit down and talk about it and understand where each other was coming from. I sat there and I thanked him because he was the one that stuck his neck out, drafted me high as a reliever, gave me the opportunity to get to the big leagues quick and allowed me to get the ball late in games quick early in my career. Mike gave me that opportunity. I know that things happen in the game but no matter what we’ve always had a straightforward relationship and for me the personal relationships mean more than anything.”
Through all the highs and lows, Storen felt and appreciated the backing of Nationals fans.
“Especially with the nature of my job, when it doesn’t go well, it’s not pretty,” he said. “But no matter what, I’ve always had that support. That’s something that’s really special about D.C. fans. They’re educated. They understand the game. I’ve gotten non-stop support from people. That means the world to me. It’s easy when things don’t go well to turn your back on somebody and just write them off. That never happened. I always felt welcome and I always felt supported. That means a lot to me and my family.”