"You're either going to be a hero or a zero," Drew Storen says of the high-wire act of the late-inning reliever, "and that's why I love it."
Six years ago, Storen made his college debut as a freshman reliever at Stanford, entering a game against rival Cal State Fullerton in a precarious late-inning situation. "Tying run on second, the kind of situation where everyone looks at the guy on the mound and says, ‘Oh man, I don't want to be that guy," said Storen, who would become one of the nation's most dominant closers during his time with the Cardinal. "But I loved the adrenaline rush. I loved being in that spot. And that's the moment that I knew: Yeah, I was born to be a reliever. I want to be that guy."
Storen knows as well as anyone the cruel absolutes of the closer's job. In 2011, his second year in the big leagues, Storen notched 43 saves in an impressive age-23 season with the Nationals and was hailed as one of the game's great young arms. A year later, on Oct. 12, 2012, he plummeted off the high wire. In Game 5 of the NLDS against the Cardinals, Washington handed its young closer a 7-5 lead to protect in the ninth, and in the winner-take-all game at Nationals Park, Storen lost it all in a flash. All it took was a double, two walks and two singles, and the Nats' season was over.
You probably know what happened next: Washington signed veteran closer Rafael Soriano to a two-year deal that offseason, a move seemingly precipitated by Storen's October meltdown. Just like that, Storen was out as the team's ninth-inning finisher. Then, 2013 happened: Storen, relegated to middle-inning duties, struggled so badly that in late July, with his ERA at 5.95, he was banished to Triple A Syracuse.
"The truth is that I probably tried to do a little too much last year because I wanted to prove something to everyone [after how 2012 ended]," Storen said Thursday afternoon at Citi Field in New York. "Of course, I was as frustrated as everyone else." Regarding the demotion, Storen said, "Was I mad? Yeah, I was mad. But I decided, I could sit around and feel sorry for myself, or I could just get better. The guy that I'd been that year, that wasn't me, so I decided, let's get back to what made me successful, and let's do it. I had to understand the process, that if I do things the right way, I'm going to come back to where I was. I believed that. I had to believe that."
Baseball loves its redemption stories, and this October, there may not be a better one than Drew Storen's. Two years after his postseason collapse, a year after his demotion to the minors, Storen is back, better than ever, and now making a compelling case to be the Nats' full-time closer — the man who will be on the mound to get the biggest outs in October. As the Nationals cruise toward their second NL East title in three seasons — after their 6-2 win over the Mets on Thursday, they increased their lead over the Braves to 8 1/2 games and saw their magic number shrink to nine — the most interesting baseball drama in D.C. revolves around the closer's job.
Soriano's second-half struggles — he has blown five saves and posted a 6.64 ERA since the All-Star break — compelled manager Matt Williams to give the righthander a break last weekend to work on mechanical issues. With Soriano on hiatus, Williams turned to Storen three straight nights in save situations. Storen was perfect in his three appearances, recording six strikeouts and providing Washington with much-needed, drama-free relief.
Soriano, who has saved 74 games for the Nationals since the start of 2013, returned to the mound on Wednesday, pitching a scoreless eighth inning against the Braves with the Nats trailing by five runs. After the game, he told reporters that he felt better, particularly with the command of his slider. Williams has still left open the possibility that at some point Soriano could reclaim the closer's role, but Storen should be the team's closer now and in October for one simple reason: He is the best reliever on the staff, and one of the best in all of baseball. In fact, this season, Storen boasts a 1.29 ERA, 42 strikeouts and just 11 walks over 49 innings.
It has been a remarkable turnaround for a pitcher who hit rock bottom just a year ago with his demotion to Syracuse. On Thursday in New York, Storen stood in front of his locker and explained how he is a changed pitcher. "What I learned last year was the fine line with this job," he said. "Trying harder is not always trying better. I just got back to what made me successful. To use a boxing analogy, in boxing, if someone hits you, you don't just go out and bar fight. You have to be calculated and strike back properly. That's just what the experience and the growing process taught me last year. Going out there and throwing harder isn't going to get me the results I want. It was never an effort thing. It was in the execution."
Storen had to go to Syracuse to understand this. During his three weeks there, he fine-tuned his changeup ("That has been a huge, huge pitch for me") and overhauled his delivery. "It was really getting back to my old motion," he said. "Spring training [in 2011], I started doing a slide step only, kind of a stiff-hip throwing motion, and as I did that more, I let bad habits creep in. I became a little too mechanical, and so then, I was worrying about mechanics when I went out there rather than just throwing and being natural. That was the beginning of getting away from who I was."
The 6-foot-1 Storen returned to a high leg kick delivery, which helped because, "I wasn't being as athletic as I should be," he said. "And since I'm not a huge guy, I don't have a lot to put behind the ball, so it's important for me to be athletic." The new delivery gave him a more consistent release point. The other key for him was improving his changeup. This year, he's throwing the pitch 18.1 percent of the time, up from 9.7 a year ago and 4.1 in 2012. "The changeup was something I started working on in college," he said. "It's a really hard pitch to throw and I never threw it growing up, so it took a while to develop a feel for it. So once I got a feel for it in 2012 in my throwing program, I started to utilize it more last year. In Syracuse I worked on it, and to come back and use it in a game and see the success that I had, and to see the success carry over to this year, that has been pretty eye opening."
There are no Cy Young or MVP candidates in Washington, but the Nats, who now have the best record in the NL and the largest run differential (+109), are peaking at just the right time. Bryce Harper is heating up, hitting .301 (31-for-103) with eight home runs over his last 28 games. Adam LaRoche has five home runs in eight games; Washington has hit the second-most homers in the majors since Aug. 1. Its pitching staff also owns the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.57) in modern MLB history (since 1900), according to Elias Sports Bureau.
And now, in Storen, the club may have found a shutdown closer to carry it through October. "I don't think this is necessarily about redemption, or erasing anything," Storen says about the Nationals' World Series pursuit. "It's baseball. You hit bumps in the road, you learn from it, and you get better from it. It's great when you're doing well, but you've always got to be ready for the other side of things. And in the end, it's how you bounce back."