Despite having already secured a playoff spot and sitting comfortably in line to win the NL Eastern Division, Davey Johnson and the Washington Nationals remain focused on the bigger picture. But while the team’s pitching staff continues to pitch superbly and the bullpen has remained relatively consistent all season long, the Nationals are primed to head into the season’s final two weeks with a two-headed monster at the back end of that bullpen, as Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard appear set to share closing duties for the remainder of the year.
Storen, the team’s second 1st Round pick in 2009 (the first being one Stephen Strasburg), was anointed the team’s future closer from the moment his name was announced that June. While he wasted little time in working his way to Washington, he did not fully take on the closer’s role until the 2011 campaign. He flourished in it. Storen appeared in 73 games during the 2011 season, posting a 6-3 record and 2.75 ERA along with saving 43 games. Washington had found it’s closer and heading into this season it was widely expected that he’d continue that trend.
Of course, things don’t always go as planned. Storen began experiencing some discomfort in his pitching elbow during Spring Training, initiating some scares that he could need to undergo a major surgery and potentially miss the entire season. However, it turns out the injury wasn’t quite as bad as some feared though it still wasn’t anything to laugh at. Storen was suffering from bone spurs in the elbow, underwent surgery in late March, and missed the season’s first three and a half months.
Johnson tried a number of candidates in the closer’s role early on – including Brad Lidge, Henry Rodriguez, and Sean Burnett. But since May 22nd the job has been Clippard’s and Clippard’s alone. He entered a 5-2 game in the bottom of the ninth at Philadelphia and promptly struck out Pete Orr before inducing ground balls by Juan Pierre and Placido Polanco. The Nationals won the game and have been in 1st place ever since.
Clippard, meanwhile, has been solid since. He’s saved 32 games and pitched to a 3.22 ERA. He had been so reliable that once Storen returned from injury the Nationals elected to keep Clippard in the 9th inning role. The former setup man had become closer, with the former closer setting up.
But Clippard has struggled of late, allowing 6 runs on 11 hits (including a pair of home runs) since September 1st. His season ERA has risen nearly half a run over that span. Meanwhile Storen has been pitching lights out. He’s allowed just a single earned run since mid-August, a span of 17 appearances. It was Storen on the mound, striking out three consecutive Dodgers on Thursday night, clinching the Nationals first trip to the postseason.
With one arm struggling and the other flourishing, the decision to utilize both interchangeably in the 9th inning role appears one its surface to be an inspired one by Johnson and the Nationals. But what remains to be seen is how the decision will be made regarding which arm to call upon. Johnson will likely “go by the situation” and will do what he can to avoid overworking either player. It’ll all depend on the matchups.
As the Nationals head into the postseason for the first time in franchise history, the man who’s already halfway to the franchise saves record (Storen has 51, Chad Cordero holds the team record with 113) in less than three years of MLB service is going to be back in a familiar role. This time he’ll share duties with one of the NL’s most consistent relievers over the past three seasons. Washington appears to be in a good spot heading into October, at least at the back end of the bullpen.