CHICAGO — Three times in Atlanta this past weekend Drew Storen was summoned from the Washington Nationals' bullpen to pitch high-leverage innings. Three times Storen, fresh off a three-week stint in Triple-A to work through some issues, came in and posted scoreless frames.
Saturday, facing the top of the Braves' order, he used 19 pitches to strike out the side. He followed that up with a five-pitch eighth inning Sunday in a one-run ballgame.
"He's been great," manager Davey Johnson said Tuesday. "I really like what I'm seeing. He seems to be more relaxed with the leg kick, instead of that stiff front leg. He's quicker to the plate. I think his stuff has been real crisp. It's good to have him back."
When the Nationals sent Storen to the minor leagues at the end of July, he took with him a 5.95 ERA in the most trying season of his professional career. What they talked about then was the desire to see Storen adjust his delivery, to become more athletic and quicker to the plate. So far, it appears he's done all of that.
But another aspect they discussed with him was to remember just how good his fastballs are — four-seam and sinking. While Storen has an impressive slider, one that has seen many a hitter flail, they stressed the point to him: Use your fastball.
"Since I've come back this time with my leg kick, I really like the way my four-seam's traveling," Storen said. "That's [how] I got all those strikeouts on [Saturday]. These guys who have faced me are expecting [my ball to sink], so you kind of have to play the game a little bit and go in. If I'm going to get a ground ball, I'm probably going to go sinker.
"I feel equally as comfortable with every pitch I throw. It's just a matter of what I'm feeling at the time."
The data seem to indicate that when Storen has been at his best, it's with a fairly equal reliance on his two fastballs and his slider. According to Brooks Baseball, in 2011, when Storen saved 43 games for the Nationals, he was fairly consistent throughout in mixing up his fastballs and his slider. His change-up, which has improved over the past two years, was rarely used.
Even in 2012, when he returned from surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow and began to round into form down the stretch, he never used his change-up more than 10 percent of the time, and he greatly emphasized his fastball.
This year, Storen has used his change-up roughly 15 percent of the time, and his emphasis on the slider has gone up significantly. Since returning from the minor leagues, albeit in a small sample, his pitch selections have been more on par with when he's had success in the past.
"Last year was so different just because you're coming back from injury," Storen said. "If you look back at 2011 and 2010 especially, I always threw a lot of sliders. It's something I have a comfort with, but you kind of go off of feel. It depends on the situation, it depends on who you're facing. A lot of things go into it. I know early in the season guys were attacking me early in the count so that's why I was going with a lot more breaking balls."
On Saturday, in facing Joey Terdoslavich, Jason Heyward and Justin Upton, 12 of the 19 pitches Storen threw were four-seam fastballs. He used two sinkers and five sliders. But what he did best was attack.
"His command with [his fastball] has been a lot better," Johnson said. "[The goal has] always been, 'No matter what you throw, get ahead.' He's done that a heck of a lot better with that than he did in the first part of the season.
"It doesn't matter to me whether he throws the breaking ball or the fastball; they each set up each other and they're both great pitches. It's all about command for him, going after guys and locating the ball better than he has in the past."
There are a lot things about this season that have been a learning experience for Storen. Particularly in making the transition to a new role, he has learned about the different tendencies hitters have when facing him in the seventh or eighth inning, as opposed to when he was closing. That has affected his pitch usage as well.
"When you're closing, it's different," he said. "Guys don't ambush you as much when you close. In the seventh or eighth inning, guys are typically more aggressive. It's just different. I think that goes into a lot of pitch selection.
"A lot of times guys late in a game might be trying to not make a mistake or really waiting for one perfect pitch instead of having a true at-bat where they hit the first good pitch they see. It's something I always notice."
The bottom line for the Nationals, and for Storen, is that it benefits neither party for the right-hander to struggle. The Nationals' bullpen won't operate at it's highest possible level unless Storen is a part of it. Thus far, they've been exceptionally pleased with what they've seen since his return.
"There's no doubt about it," Johnson said. "He's instrumental in the late inning relief."
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