The Washington Times - July 14, 2009, 11:32AM

By JAY LeBLANC

There’s a lot of blame to be spread around for the Washington Nationals‘ 26-61 first-half showing, and the team’s relief pitchers certainly deserve a good chunk of it. The Nats rank dead last in Major League Baseball in bullpen ERA (5.71) and their relievers have combined to blow more than half the save opportunities their young rotation has provided (a big league-worst 18 of 32). Given that backdrop, it comes as no surprise that the club used its second first-round pick in the 2009 draft, No. 10 overall, to select college baseball’s top reliever, Drew Storen of Stanford.

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Storen starred as a two-way player at Brownsburg (Ind.) High School, going 8-1 with a 0.89 ERA and hitting .400 with eight home runs to earn Louisville Slugger First-Team All-America honors as a senior. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound right-hander also excelled in the classroom, making him a perfect fit for baseball and academic powerhouse Stanford University. The New York Yankees took a flier on Storen in the 34th round of the 2007 draft in spite of his commitment but failed in their attempts to convince him to spurn the Cardinal for pro ball.

Storen stepped right in as Stanford’s closer as a freshman and earned First-Team All-Pac-10 honors by going 5-3 with eight saves and a 3.51 ERA to help the Cardinal advance to the College World Series. He kept his spot on the All-Pac-10 Team by going 7-1 with seven saves and a 3.80 ERA as a sophomore. The 21-year-old fanned an impressive 66 batters in 44 2/3 innings and held opponents to a .210 batting average. After selecting San Diego State phenom Stephen Strasburg with the No. 1 overall pick, the Nationals jumped at the opportunity to get Storen to potentially close out his victories in a year or two.

Storen signed for a $1.5 million bonus the day after he was selected and was assigned to the Class A Hagerstown Suns. He became the first member of the 2009 draft class to appear in a professional game when he made his debut against the Philadelphia Phillies-affiliated Lakewood BlueClaws on June 18. Storen surrendered a home run to Travis d’Arnaud on his second pro pitch and struggled in his next appearance three days later but has settled in since then. He has a 4.26 ERA through his first 12 2/3 pro innings and has struck out 21 batters without issuing a single walk.

I had the chance to speak with Storen on Monday night after he tossed a scoreless eighth inning in the Suns’ 5-4 loss to the Boston Red SoxSouth Atlantic League affiliate, the Greenville Drive.

Q: How much would you say you improved during your two years at Stanford, and what are some of the lessons you learned there that will help you in your quest to reach the majors?

A: I learned a lot. Out of high school, people told me I was polished and all that, but it was far from the truth. When you go to college and play ball, you’re playing five games a week. It’s a lot different than high school, and you just kind of learn to take care of your body more than anything. And you’re facing great hitters in the Pac-10; watching the Futures Game [Sunday], I was seeing guys I faced. The ability to get those guys out … it just was a great experience all around. I was around good coaching like Jeff Austin, who was the fourth overall pick [in 1998] and played pro ball, so I learned how to do things here [in professional baseball] too. I learned a lot that made me successful at Stanford and has helped me make the transition to pro ball.

Q: Why were you able to come to terms so quickly with the Nationals?

A: It was the perfect situation for me. Before the draft, I looked at the draft and said “That’s where I want to be.” You know, they’re struggling right now as an organization but it’s an exciting time to be with them. I knew that Strasburg was going there, so there was going to be a lot of excitement coming with him. They’ve got the new ballpark. It fit perfectly for me and I wasn’t about to hesitate to get my career started.

Q: You made your pro debut on June 18, less than two weeks after the draft. How did it feel to pitch in a professional game for the first time?

A: It was exciting, but at the same time, I got a big slap in the face - a guy hit about a 500-foot blast off me on the second pitch. So it was exciting but it was also a big learning experience. I learned that, hey, I can’t just throw the ball past everybody. It was exciting, and I was kind of nervous, had some butterflies, but I’ve calmed down a little bit since then.

Q: Could you talk a bit about the different pitches you throw and how you like to use them?

A: I throw two fastballs; I throw the four-seam and the two-seam fastball. I use the two-seam fastball when I’m throwing to contact, trying to get a guy to ground out. I throw what I guess would technically be called a curveball - it’s just a breaking ball with depth. I’ll use that as a strikeout pitch, and I’ll also use my slider as a strikeout pitch. It just kind of depends on the day and what I feel most comfortable with. The slider obviously doesn’t have as much depth as the curveball, but it’s a good complementary pitch to it. And I have a changeup that I’ll use sporadically, mainly against lefties. That’s a developing pitch that I’m using this year.

Q: Do you consider yourself a strikeout guy, a guy who pitches to contact, or some mixture of the two?

A: You know, I would say I’m a mixture of both because, depending on the situation, I can become either one. If I’m coming into a game with a guy on first and there’s one out I’m going to be more of a contact guy; I’m going to use my two-seam and try to get the guy to beat it into the ground. But if I come into a game with guys on base, a guy on third, I’m going to want to go for the strikeout. I think I’m a mixture of the two, and I can be either one whenever I need it.

Q: It’s been said that it takes a special kind of mental toughness to succeed as a closer. Do you agree?

A: I agree. It’s mental toughness too, but it’s a proper mindset - you really have to be able to kind of minimize the game. Starting, you’ve got to think, “I’ve got to get this guy out three times today, so this is the approach I’m going to take.” When you’re a closer, you’ve got to go in there and not worry about who’s on base, and not worry about the situation of the game, and just go pitch by pitch.

Q: Is there any pitcher, past or present, that you either look up to or try to model your approach after?

A: Yeah - I always say K-Rod [Francisco Rodriguez] and [Jonathan] Papelbon, and obviously Mariano [Rivera], because those are the three best closers in the game. K-Rod, Papelbon and Mariano are all “attack” guys but I think K-Rod and Papelbon really go after it the most. They’re the guys that come out and are offensive pitchers, and I love that. Mariano’s just got the filthiest pitch in baseball - that’s how he can be so successful. But K-Rod and Papelbon really just go out and attack guys. They make hitters uncomfortable in the box, and that’s something I strive for.

Q: How soon do you think you’ll be ready to help the Nationals?

A: Whenever they want me to. I’ve really learned a lot here in my first couple weeks in pro ball, and whenever they want me to help them, I would sure love to be there.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

 

Be sure to check out our previous National Pastime Prospect Q&A’s:

2009 -Jack McGeary, Nationals; L.J. Hoes, Orioles; Jordan Danks, White Sox; Mike Moustakas, Royals; Danny Duffy, Royals; Kyle Skipworth, Marlins; Xavier Avery, Orioles; Ryan Kalish, Red Sox; Derek Norris, Nationals; Zach Britton, Orioles; Pedro Alvarez, Pirates; Robbie Grossman, Pirates; Brandon Waring, Orioles; Casey Kelly, Red Sox; Michael Taylor, Phillies; Brandon Snyder, Orioles; Kyle Drabek, Phillies.

2008 -Matt Wieters, Orioles; Ross Detwiler, Nationals; Adrian Alaniz, Nationals; Jake Arrieta, Orioles; Greg Golson, Phillies; John Shelby III, White Sox; Brandon Erbe, Orioles; Chris Marrero, Nationals; Jason Donald, Phillies; John Ely, White Sox; Nolan Reimold, Orioles; Michael Burgess, Nationals; Wes Hodges, Indians; Colton Willems, Nationals; Chris Tillman, Orioles; Dominic Brown, Phillies; Brandon Hicks, Braves; Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals; Nick Weglarz, Indians; Gorkys Hernandez, Braves; Beau Mills, Indians; Stephen King, Nationals; Brad Bergesen, Orioles; Fernando Martinez, Mets; Derrick Robinson, Royals; David Hernandez, Orioles; Jason Castro, Astros; Bobby Parnell, Mets; George Kontos, Yankees; Brian Matusz, Orioles; Matt LaPorta, Indians; Austin Jackson, Yankees; Jeff Bianchi, Royals; Cole Rohrbough, Braves; Pat Venditte, Yankees.