- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2014

As the bottom of the eighth inning dragged onward Sunday afternoon, Drew Storen stopped warming up and crouched on the bullpen mound.

Storen has quietly put together the best season of any Washington Nationals reliever, all while waiting patiently for opportunities like this. With Rafael Soriano removed from the closer’s role for a few days to fix his mechanics, manager Matt Williams said he would use one of a handful of relievers in the ninth inning, depending on the match-ups.

On Sunday, it was Storen’s turn.

The right-hander jogged from the bullpen to a chorus of “Drewwww!” and did what Soriano has struggled to do since the All-Star break. Storen struck out two of the three batters he faced to record his second save of the season, punctuating a 3-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies.

Adam LaRoche hit solo home runs in his first two at-bats, Gio Gonzalez turned in six strong innings and Scott Hairston drove in the decisive run with a sacrifice fly in the sixth. Then the Nationals entrusted their lead to Storen, who didn’t disappoint.

“He was lights-out,” LaRoche said. “He’s been doing that all year for us, though. It just happens to be in the ninth inning now.”

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Williams has maintained that Soriano will return to the closer’s role if he is able to fix his recent mechanical problems, especially with his slider. But the first-year manager also has said he will give Soriano a “softer landing” upon his return to the bullpen. That leaves the Nationals in need of a closer, either for a few days or, if Soriano’s issues persist, for the remainder of the season.

Williams said he went with Storen because the first two batters due up, Carlos Ruiz and Marlon Byrd, were right-handed. But even with those match-ups in mind, the fact that Williams called upon Storen, rather than right-hander Tyler Clippard, is telling.

“He pitched really well,” Williams said. “Got Byrd and [Ryan] Howard with breaking balls. He came in and shut the door.”

Storen spent parts of three seasons as the Nationals closer before blowing a save in Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series. Washington acquired Soriano before last season and Storen struggled, eventually spending time at Triple-A Syracuse and altering the leg kick in his delivery.

Since returning from Syracuse a little more than a year ago, Storen has pitched in the seventh, eighth and ninth. He has a 1.34 earned-run average this season but only had one save before Sunday, a game in late July in which Soriano was rested because of a heavy workload.

“Really, the only thing different was the run to the mound,” Storen said of Sunday’s save. “It’s no different. Getting down to the bullpen at the same time, doing the same thing to warm up. It’s just sitting and waiting for the phone call. Fortunately, I’ve pretty much done every role down there so it doesn’t change anything. We get the call and now we go.”

Storen’s performance ensured that LaRoche’s homers and Gonzalez’s workmanlike outing would not go to waste.

For five days, LaRoche has played with a stiff back, swollen left elbow and lingering stomach bug. But with a first-pitch homer into the Nationals bullpen in the second inning, and another solo shot to right-center field in the fourth, he continued his torrid streak at the plate.

In the past four games, dating to Wednesday’s wacky 8-5 victory in Los Angeles, LaRoche has hit four homers and driven in 10 runs. He said all of his various ailments felt better Sunday, but he is still not 100 percent healthy.

“I don’t think any everyday player would feel 100 percent this time of year,” LaRoche said. “If you feel 100 percent, you’re probably not playing enough. Just that time of year, little stuff. But all in all, for September, I feel pretty good.”

Gonzalez limited the Phillies to two runs on five hits over six solid innings. His first run was unearned, as center fielder Denard Span and third baseman Anthony Rendon each threw the ball away, allowing Grady Sizemore to score.

Gonzalez got excellent movement on his curveball and finished with three strikeouts. For the first time this season, he did issue a walk.

With the win, Washington avoided a series sweep against Philadelphia and created some momentum entering this week’s series against the Atlanta Braves, which begins Monday. The Nationals have a seven-game lead on the Braves in the National League East with 21 games to play.

“Honestly, I don’t think there’s a thing as a comfortable lead,” Storen said. “This game is pretty crazy. For us to keep playing the way we’re going, it’s more about carrying the momentum and playing good baseball more than the standings or who they are. It’s about us playing good baseball.”

• Tom Schad can be reached at tschad@washingtontimes.com.

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