The Washington Times - May 11, 2011, 11:06AM

ATLANTA — Technically, Drew Storen has never been named the Nationals closer. 

He’s never been given the official title, but his last eight appearances have come exclusively in the ninth inning and he’s the clear choice for Nationals manager Jim Riggleman when the game is on the line. Riggleman has said several times that the role of closer is one the Nationals would love for Storen to have, but don’t want to put too much pressure on the 23-year-old’s shoulder.

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Regardless, Storen’s been given the opportunity to seize the role and he’s thriving, with a 17-inning scoreless streak to prove it and a miniscule 0.46 ERA.

But he’s also learning the adjustments he needs to make mentally to continue that progress.

Tuesday night, in a game that the Nationals seemed to have put out of reach with two three-run home runs in the fourth and fifth innings, respectively, Storen still found himself being asked to save a one-run game in the ninth.

“I was mentally ready, regardless,” Storen said. “Things like that happen in this game. Even if it was a big lead, I was kind of hoping to throw the ninth anyways so I was mentally locked in which is good because if you go in there unprepared you’re going to pay for it.

“It doesn’t take a lot, especially at this level, to get the game close again. For me, it’s just a quick mental approach of telling myself the same thing every time. This is what I need to do, kind of a method of attack. Once I do that, I’m all set.”

And he was. Storen picked up his eighth save of the season looking more and more like the closer the Nationals expected when they drafted him. The MASN radar gun had him hitting 100 on a pitch to Martin Prado (for what it’s worth, Gameday had it at just 97), and the save wasn’t without a little shortness of breath when Brooks Conrad — much like Mike Stanton did over the weekend in Florida — sent a deep fly ball to center field.

“I just tried to mentally bring it back,” Storen said. “And it worked, I guess. It was a good swing. i just looked at the video, it was a good pitch and a great swing by him.”

But it landed in the glove of Roger Bernadina, allowing Storen to ramp up his fastball to Prado and induce a ground out on a 97-mph sinker to end it.

Storen struggled his way through spring training, working on various things on the mound and producing numbers that raised questions about his spot on the 25-man roster. But once the season began, Storen put all of that behind him. The only earned run he’s allowed all season came in his first appearance of the year — in the eighth inning — on a solo home run by Braves shortstop Alex Gonzalez, a run that was meaningless in the Nationals 6-3 victory over Atlanta on opening weekend.

Since then, Storen has walked just five and allowed 10 hits in 19 innings. He’s struck out 13 and opponents are batting .194 against him. 

“I’m just happy with my approach,” Storen said. “I feel like I’m doing the right things, sticking to a routine and not trying to do too much. That’s where I got in trouble last year was when I tried to overdo it. I’m pretty happy with where my fastball is right now and I mean, just trying to stay consistent. As a reliever, it just takes one bad outing for something to go wrong so just go out there and minimize the game has been my big thing.

“I think (fastball command) has been a big help. Just understanding, a lot of it was the mental approach to it. I just changed my approach to it and it seems to have helped but it’s a matter of staying consistent with it. Who knows, tomorrow I could give up a touchdown so you’ve got to make sure you stay consistent.”