Before Drew Storen fired the final pitch of Sunday’s 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies, the crowd at Nationals Park stood and cheered, as is customary before the final out. But the chants for Storen were different. Fans welcomed the Washington Nationals’ one-time closer back to a familiar spot in the ninth inning with shouts of “Droooo!” Some even stood and applauded when the closer-for-the-day took the mound.
As Rafael Soriano sorts out his struggles with a break from the ninth inning, the Nationals will lean on the closing experience of their other late-inning relievers. On Sunday, Manager Matt Williams turned to the reliever with the most experience in the ninth inning, and Storen fired a perfect frame, capping a win fueled by Adam LaRoche’s two home runs and Gio Gonzalez’s strong pitching.
Williams has said — and he reiterated the sentiment following Sunday’s game — he will use an assortment of late-game relievers — Matt Thornton, Tyler Clippard and Storen — to pitch the ninth based on matchups. But managers like assigning roles, and Storen saved 43 games for the Nationals in 2011. Sunday offered a glimpse into the potential late-game scenarios for the near future.
“The only thing different was the run to the mound,” said Storen, who has been used primarily as the seventh-inning setup man this season. “Fans were real into it. We had a great crowd. That’s always fun. You always enjoy that. Soak that in for a second, move on, lock in and do what you need to do.”
Storen notched his second save of the season thanks to LaRoche, who hit both of his homers against tough left-hander Cole Hamels. Scott Hairston, who seems to start only against Hamels, fell a few feet short of two home runs but drove in the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly in the sixth inning.
Gonzalez overcame defensive miscues behind him, including one caused by the bothersome September sun, to fire six-plus strong innings as Washington avoided a three-game sweep and snapped a five-game losing streak against the Phillies. The win, coupled with Atlanta’s 4-0 loss in Miami , trimmed Washington’s magic number in the National League East to 14.
The Nationals finish the season 9-10 against the Phillies, who sit in last place in the NL East. The Nationals, on the other hand, now hold a seven-game lead over the Braves, who come to town for a three-game series starting Monday.
“It probably was the toughest game I’ve had in a long time,” Hamels said. “They weren’t mis-hitting any balls. They were hitting them pretty hard and pretty far. If they maintain the way they are playing right now, they are going to be walking in a parade somewhere. That’s a credit to their players, especially LaRoche. I guess I’m glad we don’t have to play them anymore.”
LaRoche’s past week included a bout with the flu, a tight back and a sore elbow after he was hit by a pitch. Since LaRoche entered Wednesday’s game in Los Angeles in the ninth inning — he didn’t start because of his back and illness — he is 5 for 12 with four home runs and 10 RBI in four games.
He clobbered the first pitch he saw from Hamels to lead off the second, a cutter over the plate, into the Nationals’ bullpen in right field to tie the score at 1. Two innings later, LaRoche outdid himself. With the Nationals trailing 2-1, he got a fastball from Hamels over the plate and drilled it to center field. His six career home runs are the most against Hamels.
“I don’t think any everyday player would feel 100 percent this time of year,” LaRoche said. “If you feel 100 percent, you’re probably not playing enough. Just that time of year, little stuff. But all in all, for September, I feel pretty good.”
Hairston gave the Nationals a 3-2 lead in the sixth inning when he crushed a Hamels pitch deep to left. He watched the ball and didn’t run much out of the box, convinced it was leaving the stadium. Instead, Grady Sizemore caught the ball. Still, it was enough to score Ian Desmond, who reached on a double and advanced on Hamels’s balk. Hairston also hit a ball hard to the warning track in his first at-bat against Hamels, a pitcher he has torched in his career.
“I guess bad wind currents [Sunday],” Hairston said with a smile. “I guess usually guys with pop, those balls go out. But at least somebody was on base the second time, so it seemed to turn out okay.”
Gonzalez’s strong pitching patched up the two runs the Nationals’ defense gave the Phillies. In the first inning, Denard Span fired an errant throw to third base after Marlon Byrd’s single, then Anthony Rendon skipped a throw home that allowed Sizemore to score.
In the fourth inning, Span lost a Carlos Ruiz flyball to center in the bothersome September sun and yielded a double. Byrd then singled, and Darin Ruf’s sacrifice fly gave the Phillies a lead. Gonzalez got out of the inning without further damage and turned the game over the bullpen in the seventh inning.
Aaron Barrett erased a base runner with a double play, then got a strikeout to end the seventh. Clippard fired a scoreless eighth inning, aided by an astute Nationals replay challenge on a stolen base attempt by Ben Revere. Then Storen came in for the ninth.
Because Williams is deciding game by game on the closer, he gave Storen no heads-up. The first two batters due up in the ninth — Ruiz and Byrd — were right-handed, so Storen was the choice.
Storen got Ruiz to line out, and he struck out Byrd on a wicked slider. Against pinch hitter Ryan Howard, Storen kept his pitches low and outside and got him to swing through an inside change-up. He bounced off the mound and slapped his glove.
“It’s been a while. You throw him in there in a one-run game; no room for a mistake there,” LaRoche said. “He was lights out. It was good to see. He’s been doing that all year for us, though. It just happens to be in the ninth inning now.”
More on the Nationals:
Nationals Journal: No walks for Gonzalez in victory
Nationals Journal: Pitching staff on pace to set strikeout-walk ratio record