The stubble is one problem. Two days of gray-and-white whiskers covered Davey Johnson’s face, held captive by the manager’s pledge not to remove them until the Nationals’ unsettled offense comes alive.
Troubles, however, extend beyond a bat or razor. Almost one-third of the way through the season, Johnson’s bullpen is in disarray. While the offense halted Johnson’s shaving, the bullpen is his real worry.
“That keeps me up more than the offense,” Johnson said during an extended, unsolicited dissection of his bullpen before Saturday night’s game at Nationals Park, “because I feel that the offense is going to come around.”
That proved prophetic. While the Nationals managed 11 hits, the Phillies took advantage of the struggling Drew Storen to emerge with a 5-3 win.
Storen entered a tie game in the eighth inning. He walked Michael Young with one out and struck out Ryan Howard. Then problems rained down like chants of “Let’s go Phillies!” from Philadelphia’s traveling faithful.
Delmon Young rolled a single down the first-base line and into the right-field corner. The ball seemed to die there as Young chugged home from first. When Bryce Harper finally dug out the ball and hucked it homeward, his throw was well up the third-base line.
A run-scoring double from Domonic Brown followed, as did more noise from Philadelphia supporters.
This didn’t look like the same Storen who saved 43 games for the Nationals in 2011, but lost his closing job when Rafael Soriano signed as a free-agent in January. The outing continued Storen’s season-long struggle that bumped his earned-run average to 5.21 and has seen him allow 27 hits in 19 innings.
“He’s not where we want him to be,” Johnson said postgame. “I’ve got to have him.”
The problem, from Johnson’s viewpoint, comes down to locating pitches and not simply relying on stuff. Storen has plenty of that. This isn’t a problem with confidence, either. Storen tried dropping his hands around his waist to achieve a more fluid motion. The location, though, remained an issue the Phillies were all-too-happy to take advantage of.
“It’s just like the offense, everything comes in time,” Ian Desmond said. “He’s not going to pitch like this the whole season. Soon enough he’ll be back to the guy we like. Not that we don’t like him now.”
Desmond laughed, but what Johnson doesn’t like is the uncertain feeling that surrounds his bullpen. When Soriano came aboard in January, the move was described as strengthening a strength.
Instead, Ryan Mattheus is on the disabled list with a broken hand, Henry Rodriguez and his unpredictable control can’t be trusted in key situations (though he pitched a scoreless inning Saturday), long man Yunesky Maya was jettisoned after one awful outing and Storen, like much of the group, hasn’t settled into any sort of rhythm.
“I haven’t really found a niche for everybody that they’re comfortable with,” Johnson said. “My biggest concern is getting those roles established in the bullpen.”
The latest late-game hiccup overshadowed Dan Haren striking out a season-high 10 batters over six innings. That followed an ugly start in San Diego earlier in the week where he allowed seven runs and felt as if his right arm was heavy and lobbing softballs.
On Saturday night, his pitches, for the mostpart, danced like Wiffle balls. But two of them didn’t and ended up as back-to-back, first-pitch home runs by Brown and Erik Kratz in the second inning.
The Nationals couldn’t find similar success with their 11 hits, going 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position.
“It’s baby steps,” Desmond said. “We haven’t been swinging the bats at all. … The next thing we tackle is swinging the bats with runners in scoring position.”
Johnson’s thoughts remained with the bullpen. There’s a pennant race, even in late May, and he sees few easy spots to insert Storen to work through his issues.
“We sure need him,” Johnson said.