For three months, Drew Storen remained quiet, the agony of defeat stewing inside him. The last time he appeared before Washington Nationals fans, he stood on the mound at Nationals Park on a chilly October night struggling to find the strike zone in Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. A two-run lead in the decisive game evaporated into a gut-wrenching two-run loss.
Storen emerged from his offseason on Saturday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where nearly 5,000 fans gathered for the the team’s Nats Fest. He posed for photos with fans for 30 minutes in the main ballroom, wearing a crisp white Nationals jersey over a black shirt and pants. He took the stage in Room 202B for an afternoon question-and-answer session with teammates Danny Espinosa and Corey Brown. When introduced, he received a standing ovation from the crowd.
“That’s the type of stuff that really makes you feel special,” Storen said. “The amount of support has been incredible.”
A promising and magical season ending in such heartbreak makes for a long winter, even longer when you’re the pitcher in the middle of the collapse. The image of the friendly and introspective Storen sitting slumped at his locker after the loss is hard to forget. But time, and time away, have helped Storen, who now has to face another harsh reality entering this season: the loss of his job as the team’s primary closer with the addition of Rafael Soriano.
Storen admitted he was caught off guard by the news of the free agent signing, as was close friend and fellow reliever Tyler Clippard. Storen was scrolling through Twitter on January 15 when he noticed rumblings of the signing and promptly called Clippard, who confirmed the news.
Pitching coach Steve McCatty and General Manager Mike Rizzo spoke to Storen and Clippard about their roles after the signing of Soriano, conversations Rizzo described as “constructive.” Rizzo, as he made clear at Soriano’s introduction two weeks ago, added the veteran right-hander to strengthen an already solid bullpen, not in response to the ninth inning of Game 5.
But Soriano, who has saved 132 games in his 11-year career, including 42 for the New York Yankees last season, came to Washington to pitch the ninth inning, pushing Clippard and Storen to set-up roles.
“There’s no doubt he’s going to make the team better,” Storen said. “You can’t argue with that. Our bullpen right now doesn’t even compete with anybody else’s. It’s night and day better than anybody else.”
“I’m one of 25 guys,” Clippard added. “We’re all trying to work toward the same goal. If we can add a piece of that puzzle that’s going to help us get to where we want to be, if we’re sitting here on November 1 with the trophy for the World Series, nobody’s going to be complaining about anything. That’s what we’re striving for.”
The Nationals played plenty of close games last season, the high-stress situations adding more strain on the arms of the relievers. And if the Nationals win as many games as they hope to in 2013, there could be plenty of opportunities for Soriano, and maybe others, to close games. Manager Davey Johnson often employs a two-tiered bullpen, with a primary closer and a secondary closer. There’s also the element of chance — an injury to Storen, among others, gave Clippard the opportunity to close out 32 games last season.
“It’s a long season,” Clippard said. “Injuries happen. Things happen. People get traded. We understand that and I think everyone does. To have the depth that we have is going to be beneficial for us, regardless of where we’re pitching or what we’re doing at the time. Everyone’s going to have to step in and pitch in big games and big innings and close games out, whatever the case may be, for us to get where we want to go.”
After the season ended in such heartbreaking fashion, Storen stayed for a few days at the Capitol Hill apartment he shares with Clippard. Then the two took a two-week trip to London, which helped Storen recover.
For a while, disappointment lingered for letting down his teammates and blowing the game. But then, Storen’s attention turned to next season. The itch inside of him was to return to spring training, regardless of his role, eager to erase a difficult chapter of his young career and replace it with a new one.
“You’ve got to treat that situation like any other game,” he said. “You’ve got to move on. You take the emotion out of it. It’s tougher because you don’t have that game the next day to kind of fix it. So that’s why you look at Game 6 was my workouts this offseason. That’s part of the excitement this year, looking forward to being able to correct that situation.”