It was just more than nine months ago that Drew Storen stood on the mound at Nationals Park and endured a living nightmare. His team, one out — one strike — from advancing to the National League Championship Series, could not get there. He could not bring them there. On the biggest stage of his life, at the worst time, he had a bad day.
On January 17, the Washington Nationals signed Rafael Soriano to be their closer. And in months that have followed, Storen, a former first-round draft pick who saved 43 games just two seasons ago, has struggled to regain the form that once made him an elite young talent.
Friday night, with an ERA sitting at 5.95, the Nationals optioned Storen to Triple-A Syracuse.
In the big picture, it was a move that marked a stunning turn of events.
“This is what’s best for him,” Johnson said, looking sullen after a walk-off 2-1 victory over the Mets salvaged a doubleheader sweep for his team. “He’ll probably have a hard time coming to grips with that, but it is the best thing for him.”
“He wants to work it out here and I understand that,” Johnson added. “But just needs to get right mentally and mechanically, because I need him. It’s that simple. I don’t need him where he’s at, where he at times fights the situation. He’s too important to this ballclub going forward. He just needs to get right. He gets it right, he’ll be back.”
For Storen, a nightmare of a 2013 season might’ve reached it’s low point on Friday afternoon when he was summoned to pitch in a six-run game despite dealing with a significant bout of the flu. He watched five runs score in the span of 10 pitches.
It was the 15th outing of 49 in which Storen allowed at least one run. In 23 of those 49, Storen either had a run charged to him, or allowed an inherited runner to score. Baserunners also affected him, as batters hit .429 with a .418 on-base percentage and a .714 slugging percentage when there is a runner on first base
In trying to get to the root of Storen’s issues this season, Johnson often came back to the role change — going from a closer to a set-up man — and how it had affected the 25-year-old.
“By no means is the signing of Rafael Soriano based on one inning and one game at the end of the season,” general manager Mike Rizzo said the day the team announced the signing of Soriano. But the ripple effect it seems to have caused, particularly when it comes to Storen’s psyche, is hard to ignore.
“If you’re not mentally prepared when you go out there, if you’re having any distractions, like they were running on him and he was getting real slow and deliberate, he just needs to free himself up,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if mentally he didn’t like the role he was in and that was affecting him and he was overthinking it. I don’t know. But he needs to push all that aside and go down there and do the things he’s capable of doing.”
Storen was unavailable for comment after the decision was made, meeting with pitching coach Steve McCatty and bullpen coach Jim Lett, according to Johnson. General manager Mike Rizzo also declined comment, waving a hand and walking toward the clubhouse exit when approached by a reporter.
But Johnson gave insight into the club’s decision, and also shifted much of the onus for his struggles to the pitcher, as opposed to the organization’s decisions around him.
“I always try to put guys in situations that they can be successful and by and large, the opportunities that he had, he should’ve been more successful,” Johnson said. “I was able to pick and choose parts of the lineup that he should’ve been more successful. But he sometimes gets to overthinking his mechanics and getting too tight. He’s got a death grip on the ball. I think just that not closing and the uncertainty of what day he was gonna pitch got him just more analytical.”
“There was a lot of discussion about it, even before now, that maybe since he’s never had failure, he’s never had to deal with failure, it was a sharp lesson up here, dealing with failure… I think this is going to be best served for him. Get it right, get him back.”
At least one member of the organization, however, disagreed with that assessment. Teammate — and former closer himself — Tyler Clippard, came out strongly against the organization’s handling of Storen since the end of the 2012 season.
“You basically send a guy a message this offseason for having one bad game that he’s not the guy for the job,” said Clippard, obviously emotional about the decision. “He’s only human. I mean, it’s going to get to anybody.
“Eight months later, you get to a point where he’s struggling and you turn the page on him, you send him down. It’s not necessarily turning the page on him because I think he needs to go down and regroup, get out of this environment, take a deep breath and regather himself. So I think it’s going to help him. I just think it’s been handled very poorly.
“It could’ve gone either way. I know the same message was sent to me. And I’ve been through adversity over my career. So I know how to handle it. This is a tough day. He’s going to be part of this organization for a long time, I hope, because he’s good. And we need him. But if he goes somewhere else, he’s going to be great for them. It’s one of those things that I think was handled very poorly by the organization. But at the same time, that’s the decision that was made and we have to move forward as a team.” (Full comments here)
Ryan Mattheus, whom the Nationals activated from the disabled list Friday morning as their “26th man” for the scheduled doubleheader, assumed Storen’s spot on the 25-man roster. Storen would have to pack his things and head to join Triple-A Syracuse, who happen to be playing in his home state of Indiana.
An organization that often talks with pride about its player development system will now have two players who’d once been stalwarts on their major league roster — Danny Espinosa and Storen — at Triple-A trying to find themselves.
“It’s tough,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “We’re all teammates in here and friends in here. Drew has done a lot of good stuff for this organization. I think he’s going to do a lot more good stuff for this organization. He’s obviously stuck in a little bit of a rut right now. Hopefully he can go down there and figure some stuff out and come back up here soon and be the guy that he was.
“This is a guy that saved 40 games in the big leagues. You know the talent’s there. It just shows you how tough it is to stay consistent at this level.”