In the midst of the Washington Nationals clinching the organization’s first playoff berth and the first in D.C. since 1933, it was important to note the man on the mound for the final three outs. Drew Storen, not Tyler Clippard, pumped his fist and high-fived catcher Kurt Suzuki as the clock inched past 10 p.m.
Storen was once the Nationals’ closer. He was the man who saved 43 games in a 2011 season in which the Nationals won 80. He was the man who was supposed to be racking them up again this season before a bone fragment caused problems in his right elbow and the surgery to remove it in the second week of April stole more than half of the season from him.
Clippard has filled in more than admirably, staking his claim as one of the best closers in the game in his own right.
Now, with the Nationals 12 games away from the end of the regular season and assured at least one game in the postseason, manager Davey Johnson said he’ll go to both players in save situations.
“The fact is, I told (pitching coach Steve McCatty) that I have confidence in both of them closing,” Johnson said Friday. “And depending on the rest situation, or depending on what I think is the matchup, either one of them could be going eighth, the other one going ninth if I like the way the match-ups are.”
Watching Storen on Thursday night it seemed impossible that he’d been on the disabled list for more than half the season. His slider looked as sharp as ever and he pumped two-seam fastballs on the three Dodgers’ hitters he faced, striking out Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez to seal the win.
“I feel physically better than I ever have before,” Storen said. “I feel like my stuff is better than it was last year. It’s one of those things, when you go in and have those operations you never really know how it’s going to turn out. Fortunately for me I got taken care of really well. I feel good and I feel strong and I can keep doing it, hopefully.”
It certainly sounds like he’ll be getting an opportunity to.
Johnson said he’d be more apt to use Storen against right-handed hitters and Clippard against left, though both possess the ability to get either type of hitter out.
“Clippard’s good against both,” Johnson said. “But his high fastball and changeup are really effective against left-handed hitters. Last year, Storen was ver effective. He back-doored the slider and his ball had great movement. This year, he hasn’t been getting the left-handers out as well as the right-handers.”
The stats support Johnson’s assessment. Storen is holding right-handers to a .140 batting average while left-handers are hitting him at a .357 clip. Clippard, conversely, has held left-handers to a .161 average and right-handers hit him slightly better at .208.
But instead of finding himself with a “closer controversy” of sorts, Johnson said he just views himself as having two particularly good options at back-end of his bullpen.
“Obviously (Storen’s) all the way back, and Clip has been outstanding also,” Johnson said. “So I’m not just going to rearrange the whole bullpen. They’re still my late-inning guys, and both of them are great closers. I’ll mix and match. All those things (rest, match-ups) are going to come into my decision. And when I bring the guy into the ninth, you’ll know who I’m using to close. It’s kind of simple.”
Storen was in his element on Thursday night, the familiar strains of his “Bad Company” walk-out song humming over the Nationals Park speakers as he made his way in from the bullpen. He admits he feeds off that adrenaline and it was evident just how much. Johnson said he was “bouncing around there like a high-test rubber ball there.”
It was, in many ways, the culmination of a season-long journey for Storen.
“I think more than anything it was just everything from this year,” Storen said of his emotions after the final out. “How tough the first couple months were to watch this team go out and play well. I was wanting to get back and be a part of this team. It kind of was a step in that direction.
“I felt like I’m a part of this team.”