It was a Wednesday, but that made no difference. Could have been Monday, Saturday, any day, every day. The skies were cloudy, and a September breeze pushed summer further behind, so Drew Storen altered his routine just a hair, sweatshirt and jeans replacing T-shirt and shorts. He popped out the back door of his Rosslyn apartment building and took the same route to the same restaurant where the same order placed with the same app awaited him. ¶ The worker bees creating the lunchtime din at Chipotle weren’t aware that the everyman digging into a barbacoa quesarito, a burrito wrapped in a cheese quesadilla roughly the size of a Mini Cooper, had pitched the ninth inning for the Washington Nationals the previous night. They were oblivious to the fact he was — by factual demonstration, if not by label or coronation — the Nationals’ closer and that, just a week-and-a-half later, he would be in position to turn his most public, kick-in-the-groin disappointment into a moment that might make future incognito fast-food lunches impossible. ¶ “This is my breakfast,” he said. It was 12:20 p.m. Do the math — arrive at the park at 2:30 p.m., record the final out at 10 p.m., work out after the game, bring a meal home, watch some Netflix, bed at 3 a.m. — and it makes some sense. “It’s autopilot,” Storen said. “I need to treat each day the same.”
Seventh inning or ninth, success or failure. Sleep, wake and do it again. As the Nationals enter the playoffs for the second time in three years — opening at home Friday against the San Francisco Giants — there will be much talk about making sure the postseason is just an extension of the regular season. They won 96 games and the NL East title by conducting themselves a certain way. To win 11 more this month — and the World Series title that would come with that 11th win — there should be no wavering. If a barbacoa quesarito got you here, a barbacoa quesarito will bring you home.
“All baseball players, especially relievers, they toggle the line between superstition or routine,” Storen said. “I always say it’s routine. Other people could see it as superstition. Either way, the hardest part of our job is every minute leading up to the second you run through the gate. That’s the hardest part. Because once you’re out there, you know what to do. So it’s a matter of making that as anxiety-free as possible.”
And goodness knows there is anxiety. Two years ago, so many of the Nationals didn’t know what October felt like. Now Storen enters baseball’s best month with knowledge — deep, scarring knowledge — of what can happen to psyches and careers. Washington’s baseball fan base — still developing 10 seasons after the sport returned here — knows well that the 2012 Nationals were one strike away from beating the St. Louis Cardinals and advancing to the National League Championship Series. It knows well that Storen, by the tiniest of margins, couldn’t get that strike. It knows well what it feels like to walk out of an eerily quiet stadium and into winter.
By all appearances, when the Nationals need that final strike this October, they will turn to Storen again, a to-hell-and-back journey that makes many people in the Washington clubhouse reflect, then smile.
“He was at the top of his baseball career,” said Craig Stammen, another Washington reliever and one of Storen’s closest friends on the team. “He was the closer on the team that had the most wins in Major League Baseball that year. . . . And he had one bad game, and that pretty much ruined his baseball life for about a year. This game will tear you apart, and it always humbles you. It humbled him a little bit, but it didn’t tear him apart.”
The timeline is as follows: Closer blows playoff game, loses his job to veteran free agent that offseason, struggles so much he’s sent to the minors the following season, returns to the big club, performs his assigned role brilliantly, then returns to the closer’s role after veteran free agent struggles. So the easy story line is that Storen is better now because he went through all that. But it’s not that easy.
“I think I’m better, period,” Storen said. “There’s no question about that. But because of that? No. . . . It’s not the true catalyst. There’s a lot of different factors that go into it.”
He bit into the quesarito, which, in an odd way, was one of those factors that made him better.
Relief pitchers live a curious existence in baseball. They must be ready to perform every day even though every day breaks with no way to know whether they’ll be needed. It is a mental adjustment for nearly every one of them, whether they pitch the sixth or the ninth. How to simultaneously stay rested and in shape? How to simultaneously remain calm and relaxed, sharp and prepared?
“You have to figure out a way to get a routine,” said Tyler Clippard, long the Nationals’ eighth-inning man.
So many relievers, Stammen and Clippard among them, are converted (read: failed) minor league starters. Storen is not. As a freshman in college, the Stanford coaching staff liked his puff-out-the-chest attitude so much, they felt he could help at the end of games, even as a 19-year-old. He is 27 now. He has never left that role.
“I just had that adrenaline rush because of the pressure, and I loved it,” Storen said. “I go, ‘This is it.’ It just clicked. You just have that feeling: This is what I’m supposed to do.”
Storen had that feeling when he was selected with the 10th pick in the 2009 draft, nine picks after the Nationals made Stephen Strasburg the top choice, securing both their rotation and their bullpen for years to come. They took Storen because of his athletic delivery, his electric fastball — and his demeanor.
“You have to have a little swagger to you to compete back there” at the end of games, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “There’s nobody warming up when you’re in the game. That’s it. The game’s over one way or the other when you’re in there. The weight of the world is either lifted off your shoulders — or it’s on your shoulders.”
In that offseason after the loss to the Cardinals, the weight bore down. Though Storen had saved 43 games with a 2.75 ERA in 2011 and overcome elbow surgery to regain the closer’s role from Clippard in 2012, the Nationals signed veteran Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million deal that winter. He did not complain about it openly. But an opportunity to redeem himself was stripped away.
“My mind-set was: I wanted to come back and be the guy,” Storen said. “With him coming in, I understood it. It’s baseball. But I still wanted to prove I could do it. I probably tried to do too much. I didn’t want to give up a run all year.”
That defiance — not so much about showing the organization he could do it, he said, but about showing the game he could do it — blew up on him. He broke his own, still-developing, different-day-same-stuff code. He changed his walk-in song at Nationals Park from “Bad Company,” a growling, in-your-face ’70s cover befitting a closer by Five Finger Death Punch, to the more subdued “When the Lights Go Out” by the Black Keys. And he gave up runs in bunches.
On July 24, 2013, Storen was handed a 2-1 lead in the ninth against Pittsburgh, allowed the first two batters to tie the game, was lifted with two outs and two on and was charged with three runs in a loss. Two days later, he came on against the Mets in mop-up time, carrying a 102-degree fever. The Nationals trailed 6-0 in the ninth, and on his first four pitches he gave up a single, a double and a home run. His ERA was 5.95. His delivery was in shambles. Rizzo called him in for the tough-but-obvious talk: He needed to go to the minor leagues.
“He and I had a very frank conversation that day when we sent him down about what he needed to do to get back and be a guy for us,” Rizzo said. “And he took it and went down with the right attitude. He kind of had an edge to him to get it done.”
Yet for basically the first time in Storen’s professional career, the edge had to reset itself. For basically the first time in his professional career, he was out of sight.
“All athletes go through those times of turmoil, those times where you’re not performing at the level that you know you’re capable of,” Clippard said. “But those times are as important as the times that you’re doing well because you learn the most about yourself when the cards are against you, when you’re down.
“But most of the time, those times happen in the minor leagues. Drew got to the big leagues really fast. Everyone saw that struggle last year in the big leagues. It was in the public eye. That’s different. That’s harder.”
This was not just a mental breather. Rizzo and the Nationals’ minor league staff gave Storen a checklist of improvements they wanted him to make. He needed to bench the stiff-leg delivery he had turned to in 2011 and go back to his more athletic, high-kick windup — which he had kept fresh in his pregame warmup sessions anyway. He needed to figure out a way to control the opponents’ running game because he was taking 1.6 seconds to get to the plate, allowing base stealers to go at will. He needed to get back to locating his fastball precisely, and he needed to figure out a way to get left-handed hitters out more consistently.
“He understood what they were doing,” said Jay Lehr, the pitching coach Storen has worked with at home in Indianapolis since he was 8, the man who knows his windup and his mind-set better than anybody. “He never complained, and it was kind of nice for him to take a couple days off.”
Storen made six precisely scheduled outings for Class AAA Syracuse and reappeared in a Nationals uniform Aug. 16. His delivery was better. He made 21 appearances over the rest of the season, posting a 1.40 ERA, allowing opposing hitters just a .200 average and a .214 slugging percentage. He was, as Rizzo said, a guy again.
“My goal was to get back as quick as possible,” Storen said. “How do you do that? Fix it. I knew that it’s easy to fall into that trap of, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ But that’s just the way the game is. You got to fight fire with fire.”
The fire, though, was still relegated to the seventh inning. When spring training opened this year, Soriano, who saved 43 games in 2013, was still the closer. Clippard was entrenched in the eighth.
“Any role he has, he accepts and goes after it,” Lehr said. “But he loves to close, I can tell you that. He’s got it turned on every day. That’s the thing that drives him.”
The pickup truck is unlike any other that has pulled into the circular driveway of Storen’s Rosslyn apartment building. It’s unlike any other he’ll see on his commute to Nationals Park, down the George Washington Parkway, up I-395, south on South Capitol Street. “It’s one of one,” he said as he climbed in the Ford F-150 Raptor by Roush Performance, encased in a unique vinyl pattern.
This is part of his personality, seeking the best of whatever’s at hand. When he stopped to check on a package delivery at his building’s front desk, he poured over the concierge’s new iPhone 6, comparing it to his Samsung. The living room wall of his walk-right-off-the-elevator apartment is lined with 10 putters, many of them Scotty Cameron collector’s editions — a Clint Eastwood model anchored by bullet shells, one of 75 ever made, a Tiger Woods Masters edition, on and on.
In his five seasons in Washington, Storen has lived all over — with Clippard on Capitol Hill, in Penn Quarter, in Georgetown. This year, though, he settled into Northern Virginia because the commute gives him time to catch up with people — his parents from their retirement home in South Carolina, his fiancee back in Indianapolis — that might otherwise go untended to.
“I can get too much in-the-bubble,” he said.
The bubble, though, is necessary. It is why Rosslyn has worked for him — because the Chipotle, the quesarito, represent part of his routine.
“It’s quiet here at night,” Storen said. “It’s worked out great.”
As has his season. The Nationals surged into first place in part because their bullpen — Storen in the seventh to Clippard in the eighth to Soriano in the ninth — was so good for so long. Storen began the year by allowing just one run in his first nine outings. Not for a single day this season did his ERA jump above 2.00. His change-up has become the final piece, a pitch with which he can retire lefties; a year ago, they posted an .815 on-base-plus slugging percentage against him. This year, that number dropped to .593 .
He has, in essence, grown up in the majors. Rizzo and Steve McCatty, the pitching coach, talk frequently about how Storen, before their eyes, has become a veteran pitcher.
“He understands that, ‘Hey, listen, whether it’s the seventh inning or the ninth inning, we’re up by a run, I’m going to do everything to not let this guy beat me to his pull side,’” Manager Matt Williams said. “He understands when to throw a breaking ball, when to use a change-up. He reads swings well. He does a lot of things well. He’s got a good feel for pitching. And that doesn’t matter which role he’s in. He’ll approach it the same way.”
Which is the whole point. When Soriano began September by giving up runs in three straight appearances, leading Williams to give him a weekend off to get his mind right, Storen didn’t stop going to Chipotle, didn’t change the song to which he entered the game. He just pitched. He last gave up an earned run Aug. 5.
“Someone said to me, ‘Your warmup song is boring,’” he said. “That’s what I want: boring.”
It was a Wednesday, as if that mattered. The same mid-day breakfast sat before him. He had pitched the ninth the night before. And when the bullpen gate swings open for the first time in these upcoming playoffs, and the Nationals have a chance to nail down a postseason save again, Storen will all but certainly emerge, better than he was before.
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