PHILADELPHIA — Two years ago, Drew Storen was the Washington Nationals’ closer. He saved 43 games. He pitched full innings, most often the ninth, and he faced left-handed and right-handed batters. He was among the best in the game at what he did.
When the Nationals signed Rafael Soriano to a two-year contract this offseason, a move they insisted was independent of their feelings about Storen’s abilities to close games, they changed the right-hander’s role. He would instead become an elite set-up man, they hoped, joining Tyler Clippard as one of three closers in the bullpen.
The move was easier said than done. And while Storen has shown in bursts that the ability that made him that closer in 2011 — and again in often jaw-dropping fashion down the stretch last season — his role has never seemed comfortable or set. Johnson used him in situations when the team was getting blown out, or leading by a a large margin. He wanted to get him pitching more often so he could feel more comfortable.
But in the last week that usage has changed again.
Storen has not faced a left-handed batter since June 11 in Colorado, when he was expected to face only one or two but the inning devolved to allow him to face more. The lefties in that game went 2-for-3 off him with a home run, a single and a walk.
Monday, for the second time in four games, Johnson turned to left-hander Fernando Abad with the game on the line in the ninth inning, preferring to use him against left-handed batters instead of Storen.
“There was a situation that I like left against left,” Johnson said, explaining that he preferred Abad against the left-handed Ben Revere and planned to go to Storen to face the right-handed Michael Young if Abad retired Revere. “I like my lefts right now.”
But the move was a little bit of a microcosm of how delicately the team is using Storen lately. Johnson didn’t want to warm Storen up unless he’d use him — a sin he committed a few times in Colorado — and thus could not get him warm in time to start the inning.
He said if the Nationals had tied the game earlier in the frame, Storen would’ve started the inning.
But if Revere reached, Johnson did not want Storen in the game because of his struggle to hold baserunners. “I didn’t want him to just steal,” Johnson said. So he left Abad in.
For a pitcher who was once trusted with what most in the game see as one of the toughest tasks: pitching the ninth inning, regardless of the matchups, it’s a difficult reality to reconcile.
Aside from adjusting to a new role, one that comes with less certainty around when he’ll be used, left-handed batters are hitting .353/.404/.608 off Storen this season, a product of a little bit less deception, pitching coach Steve McCatty said.
“Lately I think he’s throwing the ball a lot better,” McCatty said. (But against lefties), his arm’s been flat coming across the zone instead of down through the zone where you get better sink, better command. If you tend to be side to side then the ball comes out, your arm’s down at a different level and we’re not creating any sort of angle — so it’s easier for a left-hander to see the pitch. We’re working on trying to change that.”
The Nationals need Storen to be himself to get where they want to go. And in essence it seemed Johnson is trying to help him do so by putting him in positions where the chances are greater that he’ll succeed. But even if it’s only for a week, it’s strange to see the Nationals using him as something of a right-handed specialist.
“This past week it was kind of a tough week for him because I had him up a lot in Colorado,” Johnson said. “That is a place where you really control the matchups. The ball flies there. When he’s right, he’s good against both. This year he’s had a little problem with left. But I like the way he’s throwing.
“He’s going to be fine. Just situations, that’s all… I’m not worried about him.”