After midnight on Oct. 12, Drew Storen sat at his locker in the silent, stunned Washington Nationals clubhouse, the same thought cycling through his head: “This is not good. This is not good.” He asked himself, “What happened?” He stared straight ahead — same as he would after any bad game — until the next thought came. He wanted to change what had happened, but he knew he could not. There was no use thinking about that. He told himself, “I got to move on from this.”
Thursday afternoon, four months later, Storen climbed one of five mounds in a fenced-in bullpen, past a matrix of diamonds at the Nationals’ spring training complex. The first workout of spring training carries with it the notion of renewal, which is something Storen insists is not for him. He does not want pity, either, because he hates the idea that Game 5 made him into a victim, some sob story. He wants the opportunity to face major league hitters again, to run in from the bullpen and fire hellacious sliders and mid-90s fastballs. He does not want condolences. He wants the ball.
For observers, the end of 2012 will hover over Storen until October — and likely beyond. The Nationals handed him a two-run lead in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. He twice pitched his way to within one strike of playing for the pennant. The St. Louis Cardinals bled him for four runs. The plastic sheets in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park were rolled up above the lockers.
For Storen, the pain from the end of 2012 wore off over the winter. He watched the tape. He went to London. He learned about pitching, and about himself. Storen, 25, enters the spring with a different job after the Nationals signed veteran closer Rafael Soriano in free agency, but he has the same mind-set. He wants to pitch in big moments, Game 5 something to be learned from and, like any other blown save, a scar that healed.
“It doesn’t do you any good to go, ‘Why?’ ” Storen said. “That’s the big thing for me. I would never want to be painted as a victim. I was out there. That’s my job. That’s what I’m supposed to do, and that’s what I want to do. So I never did the whole, ‘Why? Why?’ I can get better from it.”
In college at Stanford, Storen fell in love with closing because of its cleansing nature — the day after a disaster, another chance arises to get the final out. Losing made him sick, but the schedule always offered immediate redemption. Game 5 felt different not because of the magnitude of the stage or how many people watched, but because there was no day after.
“When you get up the next day and you got a game, you can fix it,” Storen said. “I had to sit on it. I want to fix it now. That’s how I am. I want it now. I want to fix it now, so let’s go. That was probably the hardest part.”
And so, a long winter started with his thoughts in the chair after Game 5. He would receive letters and cards of support, well-wishes from friends and family. They all helped, but they paled to what came first. Teammates walked past him, patted him the back and said, “Hey man, we got you.”
“That helps the most,” Storen said. “I can start coming back. . . . The biggest thing for me is, I let those guys down. We all invested so much time into it and created such a great thing. I still take responsibility for not letting us achieve what we should have done.”
That night, Storen met his family outside the clubhouse and headed home to the Capitol Hill apartment he shared with reliever Tyler Clippard.
They held an unspoken code for the nights after bad games. Their pitching styles were too different for one to give the other any insight, and so any discussion would only add emotional weight. This game was different. In their apartment, Clippard told him, “Dude, if you ever want to talk about it, just let me know. Because I’m going to tell you you didn’t do anything wrong.”
They knew they would not sleep, so they stayed up and talked.
The next day, Storen walked to Matchbox on Barracks Row. The bartender refused to let him pay for his pepperoni pizza and thanked him for what he had done for the Nationals.
A couple of days later, Storen returned to Nationals Park to clean out his locker. He found an envelope perched in the cubby. A 73-year-old woman had written him a thank-you card immediately after the game. She told him about the Senators games her father had taken her to, and said she could die happy because she had seen the Nationals make the playoffs. Storen wrote a thank-you note back.
Staying in Washington would only bring reminders from the season, or compel him to work out when he should be unwinding. He went to New York to meet up with Brodie Van Wagenen, his agent from CAA Sports. They ate dinners and saw “Rock of Ages.” Within 24 hours of Game 5, Van Wagenen saw the same Storen he had seen when Storen was at Stanford, engaging and full of energy.
“His ability to talk about and articulate the game was unique in that . . . the way he spoke about the game was like any other game,” Van Wagenen said. “I thought that was a telling sign he didn’t evaluate that performance any differently than he would have any other game.”
One night after his New York trip, Storen was eating dinner with Clippard. “You want to go on vacation somewhere?” Storen asked his roommate. “Go take a trip?”
“Why not?” Clippard said.
They ticked off American cities. One of them mentioned London. They agreed. The next morning, Storen asked him, “Do you really want to go?” Clippard did not hesitate.
“It was definitely something that we felt like we needed to do to get away from just the monotony of what was going on,” Clippard said. “If we go home, all our friends and family are going to be talking about is the game and all the stuff like that. You don’t really want to deal with that stuff right away.”
As the postseason churned on in America, Storen and Clippard spent 10 days in London. They scored tickets to Manchester United-Chelsea, the craziest sports environment either of them had seen. They visited pubs in East London. They shopped. They never got bored. On the flight home, Storen told Clippard, “That was a really good move.”
The most frequent question Storen heard this winter is, When did you get over it? He cannot give a specific answer. When do you get over a bad breakup? Or a rejection letter from your dream college? But the London trip served as a turning point. When he returned, he was ready to start working out again. He was also ready to watch, for the first time, the final inning of Game 5.
It was hard, but Storen saw no middle ground. He had been here before. In 2010, he allowed a walk-off homer to current teammate Jayson Werth that capped a four-run implosion in Philadelphia. From that experience, he knew he could not ignore Game 5. To get better, he had to relive it.
Storen watched Yadier Molina spit on two two-strike sliders to draw a walk. He watched the count run to 1-2 on David Freese before he took three straight balls — slider, fastball, sinker. He watched the game-tying and go-ahead hits from Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma. He asked questions — Did that slider really catch a lot of the zone? Was it that bad out of my hand?
He noted out which pitches he was surprised the Cardinals didn’t chase. He held himself accountable for the pitches he didn’t make. And, in the end, he believed the Cardinals beat him on his terms.
“I got beat doing what I thought I was supposed to do,” Storen said. “For me, that was easier to realize. When you go back and watch it, [you might think], ‘I can’t believe I did that.’ I didn’t have that feeling.
“It’s just a matter of not trying to overthrow. There wasn’t a whole lot that I did. I wouldn’t change anything. It’s just understanding and processing more. It’s all little stuff. It’s all kind of part of it. I had to treat it like another outing.”
Said pitching coach Steve McCatty: “We learn by our failures. He’s going to be better for it. . . . The way we approach things, sometimes in hindsight, we can see a different way to do it. Reflection is nice.”
Storen chose closing over starting because it matched his full-throttle attitude. He admired his favorite closers less for their performance than their resiliency, how they could flush away a bad game. After the Werth walk-off, he saved 43 games the next season. He is ready to come back again.
“I learned a lot about myself just in dealing with it,” Storen said. “It’s easy for me to sit there and tell you, ‘If I were to be in that situation, I would move past it.’ It’s easy to say, ‘Have a short-term memory.’ It’s easy to say all that.
“When you get buried, you really learn whether you’re going to fight back, or you’re just going to sit there and huddle up and feel sorry for yourself. To do that on the biggest stage and move past it, that’s what I learned about myself. I had the strength to do it. You can sit there and talk about the strength all you want. But when you actually do it, that’s when you truly learn something.”
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