Nationals closer Drew Storen has a lot to prove in 2015


Sep 23, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals relief pitcher

Drew Storen

(22) high fives catcher

Wilson Ramos

(40) after earning his 10th save of the season at Nationals Park. Washington Nationals defeated New York Mets 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

After falling short of their goals in 2014, the Washington Nationals have a lot to prove next season. The team itself has to prove that it deserves to be considered one of the most talented in baseball, and several individual players have a lot to prove as well.

While this is true about a lot of players on the Nationals, perhaps the player who has the most to prove in 2015 is right-hander Drew Storen.

Storen has come along way since the Nationals selected him with the 10th overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft. Of course, that was the same year the Nationals drafted fellow right-hander Stephen Strasburg, and Strasburg was obviously the draft pick that got the most attention from Nationals fans and writers. But four years later, Storen is actually the one who has played the longest for the Nationals at the big league level.

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While Strasburg – like most No. 1 draft picks – waited until the last minute to sign with the Nationals, Storen signed right away and immediatly began to work his way up the Nationals’ farm system.

After one year in the minors, Storen made his MLB debut in 2010, before becoming the Nationals’ full-time closer in 2011. The right-hander excelled during his first stint as the team’s closer, going 6-3 with a 2.75 ERA while earning 43 saves and striking out 74 hitters. In Storen, it looked like the Nationals had finally found their closer of the future — until things went wrong in 2012.

It all started during Spring Training, when Storen began feeling pain in his biceps and triceps. An MRI revealed a small floating body in his elbow, and Storen underwent surgery to remove the fragment in April. But Storen recovered quickly from the surgery, and not only did he earn back the closer’s job from Tyler Clippard, but he was also the closer during the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals – which is where things really went badly for the right-hander.

Storen came into Game 5 of that NLDS with the Nationals holding a two-run lead over St. Louis in the top of the ninth. After retiring two of the first three hitters he faced that night, the right-hander appeared to be on the brink of sending the Nationals to their first NLCS in team history… until it all went wrong.

Storen prodeeded to walk the next two batters to load the bases, before allowing a game-tying single to Daniel Descalso. The Cardinals then took the lead on a single by Pete Kozma, and eventually won the game by a score of 9-7, ending the Nationals’ season.

Three months later, the Nationals signed right-hander Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million contract, effectively removing Storen from the closer’s role. General manager Mike Rizzo said the Soriano signing had nothing to do with Storen’s Game 5 meltdown, but that’s hard to believe, given that nobody expected the Nationals to go out and sign a closer that offseason.

Regardless of the motive, the Soriano signing hurt Storen, as the right-hander struggled mightily at the begining of the 2013 season. Storen had a hard time adjusting to his new role, posting a 5.95 ERA during the first three months of the season, before being demoted to Triple-A Syracuse in July. But the right-hander came back strong, allowing just three earned runs in 19 1/3 innings after he rejoined the big league club later that year.

In 2014 Storen was back to the dominant form that led many to call him the Nationals’ closer of the future earlier in his career. Storen dominated all year long, going 2-1 with a 1.12 ERA over 56 1/3 innings of work. Along the way, he took the closer’s job from a struggling Soriano and earned 11 saves.

During the playoffs, however, Storen’s 2012 demons returned. After starter Jordan Zimmermann had retired 20 straight batters and was one out away from finishing a complete-game shutout in Game 2 of the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants, he walked Joe Panic, putting the tying run on base and prompting manager Matt Williams to bring in Storen for the final out. But the closer allowed a double to Pablo Sandoval that tied the game and sent it to extras, where the Nationals would eventually lose, 2-1, in 18 heartbreaking innings.

For the Nationals, Storen’s blown save was one of many reasons their season ended earlier than expected. For Storen, it was another painful postseason appearance that will once again leave him wondering, “what if”, all winter long.

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But this time, things are different. This time, the Nationals didn’t go out and sign someone to take Storen’s job. Sure, they signed former closer Heath Bell to a minor league deal, but his days as a closer are more than likely behind him. Unless the Nationals acquire a closer before Sping Training, which is unlikely, the ninth inning will belong to Storen in 2015.

As we know, Storen did not come back as himself the last time his season ended with a disastrous playoff appearance. That simply can’t happen in 2015. The right-hander has to show that he’s learned from his mistakes, and that he’s moved on.

Furthermore, Storen only has two years left on his contract, and if he wants to be the Nationals’ closer of the future – or anyone’s closer, for that matter – he has to show that he can get the job done, even in the playoffs.

There are many people who doubt Storen. There are many people who think he simply can’t handle the pressures of the postseason, and that he’s better off in a lesser bullpen role. Fortunately for Storen, the Nationals are one of the best teams in the game, and if all goes well, he’ll have a chance to prove those people wrong come October.

Right now, Storen appears to have the trust of his team, which is something he didn’t have two years ago. And sometimes, that’s all it takes. But if he wants to be a closer, Storen has to prove his worth – and he has to do it next season.

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