- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 2, 2014

Washington Nationals closer Drew Storen just doesn’t think about it anymore.

Nearly two years ago, Storen slouched in front of his locker with a sinking feeling in his stomach. He entered Game 5 of the National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals with a two-run lead and walked off the field with a two-run deficit. The Nationals lost the game, 9-7, and were eliminated from the playoffs. Storen was charged with a blown save.

“It just shows you how it’s a game of inches,” Storen said recently with a shrug. “A couple things here and there, and things would be a little bit different.”

Such is the life of a relief pitcher in Major League Baseball. For every game-saving strikeout and celebration on the mound, there also is the harsh prospect of failure. It hangs over the mound in the eighth and ninth innings, creeping into the minds of those who toe the rubber with the stadium roaring and the game in the balance.

To be a relief pitcher is, at its core, to be on the edge.

“The challenge is knowing that there is failure, and it’s going to happen even in big moments,” said Robert Price, who founded the sports psychology consulting service Elite Minds. “And using that then as the motivator or the catalyst to get to where you want to go.”


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Some, like Storen, are masters of the process. After slumping and spending time in the minor leagues last season, Storen returned to Washington with his old pitching mechanics and a fresh outlook. He has re-emerged as a dominant closer and one of the best relievers in baseball. Entering Game 1 of the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants on Friday, he has a 1.12 earned-run average, the best in the National League.

“He’s a true professional. And he wants to be great,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “For him to take that step back and go down to the minor leagues showed the character and the makeup of the man.”

For other relievers, however, the effects of a momentous blown save linger. In some cases, they go even beyond the field.

In Game 5 of the 1986 American League Championship Series, California Angels pitcher Donnie Moore was one strike away from clinching the team’s first American League pennant. Instead, he surrendered a home run to Dave Henderson of the Boston Red Sox. The Angels went on to lose the game and the series.

Moore struggled with injuries, retired in 1989 and committed suicide later that year.

Another reliever, Mark Wohlers, was one of the best closers in the league for the Atlanta Braves before allowing a game-tying three-run homer in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series against the Yankees. That blown save, in addition to injuries and several personal issues off the field, dampened his confidence.

At one point in 1998, he refused to throw bullpen sessions. “I was afraid of what the results might be,” Wohlers told The New York Times. He left baseball in 2003 and is now a real estate agent in Georgia.

“It’s tough,” former Cincinnati Reds pitcher Pat Darcy said. “You can give up a run, two or three runs, as a starter and still be in the game. You might get off to a slow start in the first couple innings, but after that you get your stuff together and move on. You don’t have that luxury if you’re in the game and the game’s on the line.”

Darcy was mostly a starting pitcher for the Reds but is best known for his relief appearance in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, when he gave up a game-ending home run to Carlton Fisk of the Boston Red Sox in the 12th inning.

Darcy said the two roles — starting pitcher and relief pitcher — require completely different mentalities.

“You’ve got to go at them [as a reliever]. You’re going all out,” said Darcy, who also now works in real estate. “When I came in [to Game 6 of the World Series] and the game was on the line, I was all out. It was like, wow. It’s totally different than a starter, when you know one run isn’t going to lose the game for you.”

The numerous cases in which pitchers are not able to rebound from a blown save only make Storen’s resilience more impressive. After his performance in Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS, the Nationals signed Rafael Soriano to become their new closer. Storen struggled with his command and was shipped to Triple-A Syracuse.

During his brief time in the minors, Storen re-adopted the leg kick that he used in college at Stanford and early in his professional career. He improved his fastball command, developed his change-up and quickened his delivery to the plate, building confidence along the way.

“Last year I was a little mechanical and worried more about mechanics than just pitching,” Storen said. “I got away from what made me successful. So just going back to doing that really helped me out.”

It’s something that all baseball players go through, fellow Nationals reliever and close friend Tyler Clippard said. Storen was unique because, as a high-round draft pick who was almost immediately summoned to Washington, his struggles occurred at the major league level.

“It was more prevalent to everybody to see and watch,” Clippard said. “But when you come out on the other side of those things, you’re always going to be better for it. You’re going to have a better outlook on the game, you’re going to have an ability to perform better and your confidence will rise when you go through those types of struggles. And that’s what happened with Drew.”

As Storen prepares for this week’s playoff series, the sinking feeling in his stomach after Game 5 in 2012 is long in the past. The chill of that October night is all but forgotten. His struggles, his mechanical problems, his time in the minor leagues — all done.

“Everybody’s going to have their ups and downs,” Storen said. “But you’re better in the end, and it kind of made me who I am. So it’s been good.”

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