BALTIMORE — Drew Storen’s return is nearing. He left Baltimore on Sunday morning to head to Viera, Fla. for a few days to throw a “heavier” live batting practice session, get a few more of his belongings and meet the team in Atlanta where his first simulated game will likely await. After that, probably a rehab assignment.
The steps between him and his healthy return from April surgery to remove a bone chip in his right elbow are finally few. The job he left a few months ago, though, might not be waiting for him immediately upon his arrival.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson said late Saturday night that with Tyler Clippard 12-for-12 in save opportunities — and having allowed just one hit in that stretch — he “can’t see going to somebody else.”
“They’d have to show me up here, probably in a set-up role, before they have the opportunity to close,” Johnson said.
For now, Storen, who saved 43 games for the Nationals in 2011 on a team that finished one game under .500, knows that’s just news he’s going to have to live with.
“It’s fine,” he said. “He’s supporting the guys that have gotten this team where it’s at. Tyler’s been that guy.”
“I know how baseball is, it’s what have you done for me lately,” Storen said. “And the fact of the matter is I haven’t done anything this year. That’s part of the motivation to get back because I want to contribute to this team.
“I feel like I helped this team out a lot last year and I really feel like I’ve been a part of helping to turn this thing around. So for me to get back and be a strong contributor down the bullpen, that’s what I want to do. All that other stuff, all this stuff, doesn’t matter.”
Storen tried to smile as the words were coming out of his mouth. His roommate and close friend, Clippard, has thrived in the role he’s been forced to vacate as he heals. And while he’s happy for both Clippard and the team’s success, there’s no easy way to hide how difficult it has been to watch it all happen without him.
He understood the logic behind being used in a set-up role — especially at first — as a way to ease him back into work at the major-league level. But he also had no doubts that, if the situation necessitated it, he could step back in and be the same closer he has been in his career with the Nationals.
“I know that when I come back I’ll be good,” he said. “I’m going to need to get my feet wet. I think it’ll be good for the acclimation of it, but in the end, I have all the confidence in the world that I can come back and close games. Since Day 1, since I had surgery, I told myself I was going to come back better and I believe that wholeheartedly. People doubt it. Hopefully I’ll prove them wrong. I know I will.”
Storen brushed off the idea that it will be a huge difference between the work he’s doing on rehab and the work he’d get in games for the first-place Nationals. He’s been facing his teammates in live batting practice sessions (he faced Rick Ankiel and Jhonatan Solano in his first one) and will face more major league teammates on Friday in Atlanta.
“I know where I’m at,” he said. “I know how I feel and I know what I need to do. I know I haven’t exactly had a long career but I feel like I’ve made pretty good contributions in my time here. I’m confident in my abilities and I’m excited to come back in crunch time and help seal this up. It’s a really good thing.”
Both Storen and Clippard are arbitration-eligible this offseason and it’s important not to overlook the business aspect of these decisions. Whichever player is missing out on more of those save opportunities and high-leverage situations is costing themselves money in the arbitration process. It would be unfair to assume that either one is thinking about that as they work toward a common goal for the Nationals this season, but it’s not an irrelevant fact.
Since the Nationals drafted Storen in 2009, they felt he was going to be the closer they saw him evolve into in 2011. He can’t be that guy until he’s healthy and they’re leery of messing with a good thing. But if the Nationals continue to be as good as they’re expecting this season, he’ll need to be that guy again at some point.
“It’s business,” Storen said. “It is what it is. It’s part of the business. We’re all here for the same reason. It doesn’t matter as long as we’re winning at the end of the year. Nobody’s upset about anything.”