The mob of reporters in rain jackets they no longer needed and cameras encased in plastic bags drifted away from Drew Storen.
The pitcher sat facing his locker in the early hours of Saturday morning, sandals on, staring at his phone. Frozen.
Rolled-up plastic tarps hung around him in the Washington Nationals clubhouse. Muffled words. Hugs. Dull thuds from back slaps. Red eyes staring at carpet supposed to soak up champagne that, instead, sat dry.
Thirty-three pitches, 33 bits of agony kept Storen company. This is the other side of October.
“I just didn’t execute,” he said.
The words of Storen’s entrance song barely faded from Nationals Park before they were replaced by the whine of leaf-blowers collecting trash and the end of a season:
And that’s why they call me
I can’t deny
Bad Bad Company till the day I die
Until the day I die
As midnight hit and the first 94 mile per hour fastball left Storen’s right hand in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, the song screamed hope to Nationals Park. One inning — and the middle of the St. Louis Cardinals’ lineup — separated the Nationals from the National League Championship Series.
One inning turned into one strike.
Surgery to remove a bone chip in his right elbow sidelined Storen until July. The 25-year-old who saved 43 games last season finally regained his old closer’s job in September. Storen craves the ninth inning’s pressure.
“It’s the best job when you’re good at it,” Storen said, “and it’s the worst job when you fail.”
He hates to lose. Abhors it. You won’t find a more competitive person in the clubhouse. Doesn’t matter if it’s baseball or Call of Duty, where defeats break controllers. Jeff Austin, his pitching coach at Stanford, once described Storen as “angry to fail.”
With a 2-2 count on Yadier Molina, Storen threw an 85 mph slider. The largest crowd in ballpark history, on their feet for the last three innings as the Nationals clung to a two-run lead, groaned. A bit of luck would’ve turned the pitch into a strike. Then came another slider, another ball.
David Freese, hero of 2011’s World Series, found himself in a 1-2 hole. One strike away. Again. But Storen’s slider … then four-seam fastball … then sinker couldn’t find the strike zone. The Nationals’ supporters who shifted from one foot to the other to best the night’s chill now did so from unease.
Storen felt, well, normal. Catcher Kurt Suzuki didn’t see anything amiss. His pitches worked like they were supposed to. He didn’t have a problem with home plate umpire Alfonso Marquez’s strike zone. No regrets. No changes.
Then came Daniel Descalso’s two-run single, the swing that stifled a stadium. Five pitches later, Pete Kozma’s single brought home two more runs and put the Cardinals ahead for good, 9-7.
Twice, one strike stood between Storen and extending the first Major League Baseball postseason by a Washington team in 79 years. That turned into nine minutes of hell.
Before the preparations for the soaked celebration could be dismantled, Storen faced an army of television cameras and lights and microphones next to a leather couch. The son of an Indiana sportscaster spoke in a steady, certain voice. He didn’t hide. He didn’t shed tears.
“Bad taste in my mouth,” he said. “That’s going to stay there for a couple months, probably never going to leave and going to be motivating and give me a little fire every time I go out there.”
Nearby, Storen’s roommate and good friend Tyler Clippard wrapped his arms around his chest and looked at the dry carpet. Over and over, he used the word “together.” He wasn’t about to let Storen shoulder the loss.
“It’s devastating,” said Clippard, who pitched the eighth inning to set up Storen. “We were one strike away.”
The words left his mouth like he didn’t quite believe they came that close and, somehow, the opportunity disappeared.
Gio Gonzalez, the starting pitcher, insisted he’d give Storen the ball every time in a similar situation. Manager Davey Johnson labelled this a “hiccup.”
“Drew went through a lot this year,” added third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “And then for him to come back and be who we was for us at the end of the year and into these playoffs was a good effort by him. I think Drew’s going to be a great closer for a long time.”
In the clubhouse’s stunned silence, cut by whispered conversations and the thump of stools for television cameramen, Storen seemed the only certainty.
And he didn’t move, as the message on the back of his red and gray T-shirt, “Go sit in the truck,” faced the clubhouse. The closer sat alone.