- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 29, 2015

VIERA, Fla. — Somewhere along the way, Drew Storen became a veteran.

He’s not sure exactly when or how it happened.

“It’s weird,” Storen said, leaning against his locker on Sunday morning. “It’s one of those things where it goes by really fast, but it feels like I’ve been doing this for a long time.”

The 22-year-old prospect who arrived at Space Coast Stadium in 2010 is now nearing the end of his sixth spring training. At 27, he has been a member of the Washington Nationals’ bullpen longer than everyone except Craig Stammen. Only three other current players — Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann and Ryan Zimmerman — had a locker in the Nationals’ clubhouse before Storen did.

Storen’s time in Washington has featured stretches of success and a few well-documented moments of failure. He was replaced by Rafael Soriano and briefly shipped to Triple-A Syracuse in 2013. At this time last year, he was cast in a seventh-inning role.



Now, Storen will enter 2015 as the announced closer for the odds-on World Series favorite, the lone constant in an otherwise amorphous group. He returned to the mound Friday, pitching in a spring training game for the first time since undergoing surgery to remove the hook in the hamate bone of his left hand earlier this month. He allowed one walk and one hit in a scoreless inning.

Manager Matt Williams faced daily questions about the closer’s role late last season, when Soriano struggled and bullpen roles became murky. This year, there are no questions. Pegging Storen as the closer was an easy decision.

“That’s a given,” Williams said. “It’s nothing new for him. He understands the role. To name him the closer is important, logical, and he likes that.”

When Storen blew a save in Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, the front office responded by signing Soriano, who was a free agent at the time, to a lucrative two-year contract. The move was hardly a vote of confidence, and Storen struggled the following season.

In 2014, however, he was among the most dominant relievers in the National League. In 65 appearances, he recorded 20 holds and 11 saves with a 1.12 ERA, the lowest among NL relievers who threw more than 40 innings. He surpassed Soriano in the closer’s role and has support from the team entering 2015.

“Yeah, it’s nice. I have that vote of confidence from them. That’s great,” Storen said. “But for me, from a preparation standpoint, it doesn’t really change a whole lot. I would say a couple years ago, it probably would’ve been a little bit different. But now just with the different experiences I’ve had and just having more time under my belt, it’s understanding that it’s really not that much different. I’ve still got to get three outs.”

Naming a closer has become second nature in the baseball world, but is the title itself really all that important? Storen said all late-inning relievers have to adopt the same mentality, so there’s no real difference there. Williams said the title is important only because others give it importance.

“I don’t know. Why is the Opening Day starter important? You know what I mean?” Williams said. “Probably because people ask the question.”

Pitching coach Steve McCatty believes bullpen roles are fickle. They can change on a daily basis depending on how the starting pitcher performs, the score, the opposing lineup, the schedule over the next few days and any number of other factors. While it’s important for a reliever to have an idea of when he’s going to enter a game, McCatty said no role is ever truly set in stone. Various roles haven’t altered Storen’s mindset.

“In his mind, he is a closer,” McCatty said, “but he would do whatever roles we had for him the last couple years.”

Announcing a closer does provide a tangible comfort, however — and not just for the guy who earns the job.

“I think when you have a guy late that you can absolutely count on, it helps the guys in front of him,” Janssen said. “Because they know all we need to do is get the ball to Drew in the ninth inning and the game’s over. I think from a clubhouse perspective, that’s a comforting feeling.”

In the second half of his final season with the Toronto Blue Jays, Janssen struggled, perhaps because of a bout with food poisoning over the all-star break. In turn, the team decided to use a closer-by-committee approach. Janssen said he was soon hosting daily press conferences in the clubhouse and answering the same questions over and over and over again: “Who’s closing tonight? Who’s closing tonight?”

“It was that nagging little gnat that never left,” the 33-year-old said. “It became a story, as opposed to, ‘Here’s our guy.’ Whoever it is.”

This year, barring an injury or sizable dropoff in performance, that guy will be Storen. As an up-and-comer in the Nationals organization, he roomed with ex-teammate Tyler Clippard, playing video games and sharing a bachelor pad. This summer, he married his girlfriend, Brittani, and honeymooned in Bora Bora.

“There’s no amount of sunscreen that could’ve helped me there,” he said, grinning.

Storen has grown up, and grown into a veteran’s role. He marvels at the difference between the mindset he brought to Viera in 2010 and the mindset he has now.

“You just see more of the marathon of the season,” Storen said. “I think as you get more time and experience, you understand staying even-keel, and staying off the roller coaster a little bit.”

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

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