HOUSTON — Drew Storen was just sitting in the bullpen Saturday holding a baseball when something clicked. Gripping the ball the way he usually did to throw his change-up, a pitch he had been working on improving since the end of the 2011 season, Storen shifted his fingers in the slightest of ways. The comfort was immediate.
He tried his new grip out the following day playing catch before the game. When he was summoned for his first save of the season Sunday afternoon against the Miami Marlins, he knew it was the time to throw it. With Jose Reyes at the plate, that’s just what he did.
“He’s a good hitter and he sees my fastball and slider,” Storen said Tuesday, thinking back to the first outing this season in which he’s used the pitch so liberally. “What better way to test it? And obviously in a big situation. If I can trust it in a big spot like that, that’s it.
“It was an aggressive move for me to try it then, but that’s what I wanted to do — test it against a really good hitter.”
Reyes struck out swinging, and Storen closed out the 4-1 win. It was another small step for Storen — the details, as he referred to them Tuesday, in his steady progress back to being the closer he was in saving 43 games for the Nationals in 2011.
He’s been on Washington’s active roster since July 19 and there’s no question he’s healthy after surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow. While the rest of his teammates have four months of work behind them, Storen’s body still is in the middle of April.
First it was pitching on back-to-back days, then re-adjusting to the setup role after spending most of last year exclusively as a closer. Now it’s refining his pitches.
“I kind of look at [the change-up] as, ‘What a versatile pitch.’” Storen said, having noted previously how improved his sinker is. “And I’ve seen the way [Tyler Clippard] uses his. Granted, I don’t ever see my change-up getting to that status. But if I can get halfway there, it’d be something great for me to use.”
Monday night in Houston, it wasn’t the change-up that was on display but the lack of refinement when Storen entered with a man on third and threw sliders and sinkers that were darting out of the zone.
It wasn’t until he was faced with the bases loaded (after two walks) and a 3-0 count that he threw his fastball. He was out of the inning moments later, though he drew his manager’s ire.
“It was moving too much,” Storen said. “Out of the hand it felt great, then it was all down in the zone. There was no excuse for me to miss, but it’s about finding that comfort level now — now that my sinker’s better, still being able to use my four-seam and still trust it.”
In a bullpen that has been one of the league’s best all season, Storen’s re-emergence will be key to Washington’s late-season success.
The more comfortable he gets, the more likely manager Davey Johnson is to use him in save situations to spell Clippard, keeping both fresh.
“I’m real confident right now in either Clip or Storen closing,” Johnson said. “But Clip has had the hotter hand and did the bulk of the work. I’m not going to take anything away from him because he’s been so good.”
Johnson is regaining comfort with the roles in his bullpen, an area that had been an issue for him since Storen returned, but he disregarded the idea that using Storen in save situations could lead to Clippard feeling nervous.
“Not at all,” he said. “Clip knows he’s done a good job. He’s done a good job setting up. He’s done a good job closing. Right now, he’s the guy out there to basically finish the game up. Workload will merit what goes to Storen and what goes to Clip.”
Johnson has said since spring training that eventually the Nationals will need more than one person closing games.
With each step, however small, that Storen takes in that regard, they get closer to that point.
“It’s just a matter of still getting back and pitching in big-league games,” Storen said. “I’m here. I’m ready. There’s still just little minor adjustments.”
NOTES: Jayson Werth did not start for the Nationals on Tuesday after he left Monday night’s game in the seventh inning with leg tightness.
The Nationals’ newest acquisition, infielder Cesar Izturis, joined his teammates Tuesday.