- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Inside the inferno, Drew Storen paced back and forth.

“Are you ready for this?” he asked.

Six Sunbeam space heaters hummed the room’s temperature past 110 degrees. Wedges of carpet were shoved under each door. Lights dimmed. Each breath brought heavy smells of old socks and perspiration.

A solitary window taunted with views of a tree gyrating in the salt air drifting down Highland Street in downtown Melbourne, Fla. Small brown leaves scratched past the “Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Series” sandwich board near the sidewalk on the late February afternoon.

Storen, the 24-year-old closer for the Washington Nationals, has a tough time sitting still. Everything is a competition: batting gloves he wears for an added edge when playing the NHL 12 video game, Nintendo 64 controllers he smacked against his bedpost when he lost games growing up, the iPhone he designed years before the real thing existed, the jacket his exasperated pitching coach at Stanford, Jeff Austin, laid in the bullpen to keep Storen from stomping around after errant pitches and, of course, the druglike, mind-racing blur of trying to record the final three outs of a game.

Yoga forces Storen to relax, if such a thing is possible.

Storen secured his shaggy blond hair with a black band. He pounded 4.5 liters of water earlier and expected to soon wring sweat from the hair. After all, his home for the next 90 minutes rested inches from a heater glowing orange from the its dual heating elements. Jack McGeary, a Nationals pitching prospect and his Stanford roommate, hooked him on yoga. Now Storen had eager eyes: the paint-peeling heat was the most of any session he’s done.

“Namaste,” the instructor said.

The monotone man, flat-stomached, rubber band around his ponytail and without a suggestion of sweat, cycled through poses. Camel. Rabbit. The names faded into a haze of rising temperatures and pretzeled bodies. Each breath felt like it contained less oxygen than the one before. Drops of sweat created small rivers that flowed onto the mat.

When Storen shifted positions, the sweat rivers flung past late-afternoon sun streaking through the window. Dark spots appeared on the mat. The towel was drenched. But Storen didn’t sneak glances at the clock on the wall behind him. His face was blank, like he was somewhere else.

A rush like nothing else

Life feels like a movie to Storen these days. Or winning the lottery. Or participating in a fantasy camp. The metaphors spin together. When he walks into the Nationals‘ clubhouse, his eyes fix on the jersey hanging in his locker and “Storen” embroidered on the back. No sponsors. No pressed-on logos. That doesn’t get old.

Storen stockpiled jerseys growing up in Brownsburg, Ind., from Ken Griffey Jr.’s teal Mariners top to Michael Jordan’s black-and-red pinstriped Bulls jersey. So, when Storen sees his embroidered name, none of this seems like reality. At the end of each day, he half-expects the jersey to be taken away and the dream to end.

But dreams don’t zip 95 mph fastballs or sliders that bite like the tiger sharks lurking in the Atlantic Ocean near Melbourne. The Nationals trust Storen’s right arm as the final line of defense for their starting rotation, rebuilt through surgery, trades and cash. An inflamed right elbow means he’ll start the season on the 15-day disabled list, but the Nationals expect him back soon. Forty-three saves came last season, his first as a full-time closer. Finishing games, Storen stumbled onto a rush nothing in his life matched.

“He didn’t find being a closer,” said Andy Keller, his close friend since they were fifth-grade bus buddies and bonded over WWF-style trampoline wrestling. “Being a closer found him.”

Storen is as unassuming as your next-door neighbor and, if not for the right arm that’s decidedly unlike your neighbor’s, would have finished the five quarters remaining for his mechanical engineering degree at Stanford and happily landed an industrial design job in California.

In 2004, three years before Steve Jobs revealed the first iPhone, Storen used a 3D modeling program to add phone buttons to a clunky iPod. He also imagined new uniforms for the Indiana Pacers, filled the margins of classroom notes with sketches of shoes and cars and practiced his autograph, unchanged since sixth grade. Earlier this year, Storen Photoshopped a custom cleat design for Mizuno to produce and changed his glove’s webbing to blue and silver. Design matters to him as much as baseball.

As a child, Storen kept a small desk at home next to his graphic designer mother, Pam, and played catch with his father, Mark, then a television sportscaster still in suit and tie, before he returned to the station for the 11 p.m. news. Mark Storen did live shots for the 6 p.m. broadcast from his son’s Little League games so he wouldn’t miss a pitch. Storen thought that normal. His parents worried he did too much. They urged him to slow down.

But Storen’s mind moves as quickly as his fastball. A closer’s head matters as much as his arm. Storen analyzes everything, on the mound or off. Like throwing four fewer warm-up pitches, at the suggestion of ex-Nationals right-hander Todd Coffey. Multiply the four pitches by 73 appearances each season and Storen saw years added to his career. Sean Burnett, the Nationals‘ left-handed reliever, finds his friend “different than the rest of us” in the bullpen.

“He has this side to him,” said Burnett, lamenting his own lack of creativity. “He can look at things differently than the others.”

‘Boom, it’s on’

The ninth inning brings pressure Storen craves. The feeling first grabbed him during front-yard baseball games in Indiana, where he tried to imitate Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball and ached to be the best kid on the street, and hasn’t let go. Now, jogging in from the bullpen as Five Finger Death Punch’s “Bad Company” thumps about being born with a shotgun and the crowd rises, Storen thinks he could plow through a wall. The adrenaline surge leaves him feeling as if he’s going to burst.

“I do so much better if someone would just come up and punch me,” Storen said. “Then, boom, it’s on. I essentially have to punch myself before I go out there. Mentally punch myself.”

The first season Storen closed at Stanford, he tried to do too much. He wanted to overpower hitters. Embarrass them. Dominate them. Imitate the closers he worshiped. That didn’t work.

Austin, the fourth overall pick in Major League Baseball’s 1998 draft who pitched parts of three seasons in the big leagues, tried to corral Storen’s intensity. Slow the game. Limit highs and lows. Did Storen take to the adjustments at first? “Not a chance,” Austin said and laughed. So, Austin put the warm-up jacket on the bullpen dirt. Storen wasn’t allowed to walk past it.

“He’s angry to fail,” Austin said. “He’s got the good anger.”

That applies to any area of Storen’s life. Just check the regular trips to Best Buy for new video game controllers after NHL 12 or Call of Duty showdowns with mild-mannered roommate Tyler Clippard. The Nationals‘ right-handed setup man professes amusement when his friend chucks controllers across the room over video games Clippard considers meaningless.

On the mound, Storen’s movements are slow and deliberate. Keywords, like “hips‘“or “hands,” are written under his hat’s brim. But inside his head is an all-out sprint. It starts in the seventh inning, when he stretches and darts around the bullpen, unable to sit still. In Storen’s mind, he’s already entered the game. Nerves only visit if he hasn’t prepared.

When Storen actually enters, a running conversation starts with himself. If television cameras zoom in enough, you’ll see Storen muttering. Keep the first fastball down. There are only three outs. Win the first pitch. That’s Austin’s influence: breaking the game into manageable pieces, rather than believing each pitch is like facing Albert Pujols with the game in the balance. That rips apart the pressure that can be as destructive as it is addictive.

Storen’s mind becomes a zoo of uncaged thoughts. Don’t overthink, he reminds himself, then weighs the risk of throwing an 0-1 slider to a batter who smacked that pitch against him two weeks ago but usually struggles with it — according to the scouting report — against trying to sink a fastball. And don’t forget the prompts under the brim. Each mental checkpoint needs to be ticked off before Storen can throw a pitch. If he throws without thinking, the pitch usually misses straight down the middle.

Storen’s instinct is to try and throw the best breaking ball in history, as he puts it, instead of a clean, quality pitch. The 18th hole is the image Austin used. Like being on the final hole at Duran Golf Club next to Space Coast Stadium, the Nationals‘ spring home, and trying to drive the ball 600 yards. The ball usually sputters to the ladies’ tees or out of bounds.

Pumping the brakes

During a stretch last season when the pitches sputtered, Storen retreated to art. That’s one antidote for failure on the mound, aiding an uncanny ability to forget bad outings. Words are rarely in short supply for Storen, but he doesn’t like to talk out pitching struggles. Instead, he put Dave Matthews on his headphones. Then Storen spent hours redrawing a photo of himself high-fiving ex-Nationals catcher Ivan Rodriguez after a save.

Teammates sometimes spy him sketching on the team’s charter, but Storen keeps art private. “You never know if people are being nice or if it sucks,” he said. He painted an abstract version of Michael Barrett slugging A. J. Pierzynski in 2006 and a pop art interpretation of Batman’s head.

“Instead of sitting there and getting really frustrated with yourself … you’re thinking about things you naturally sort out,” Storen said. “I like mindless work. I like art.”

Back in Melbourne, the blank look on Storen’s face is gone. The inferno is over. “Domination,” he tweeted. All that remains are embers of trying not to pass out and the clock seeming to move backwards and your reflection gaping at you from the room’s mirrors like a stranger. A drop of sweat never appeared on the instructor.

The sessions pump the brakes in Storen’s life. Sprawled in a chair near his condo’s pool, blissfully cool wind gusts past. The sun is down. Storen looks like he could fall asleep. He’s finally still.

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