Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 5, 2014

Another Bitter Ending For Storen And The Nats

For Drew Storen of the Washington Nationals it had been 722 days between appearances in the playoffs. The last, on October 12, 2012 was in Game Five of that year’s Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Nats were the surprise team of the majors that year. Led by Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper and Manager of the Year Davey Johnson, and buoyed by the return of pitcher Stephen Strasburg from Tommy John surgery, Washington rolled to 98 wins, the most in the Great Game. For the first time since the original Washington Senators lost the World Series to the New York Giants in 1933, postseason baseball returned to the nation’s capital.

Storen had been the Nats closer in 2011, but began the 2012 campaign on the disabled list, recovering from surgery to remove bone chips from his pitching elbow. After returning in July he gradually took over his old role from Tyler Clippard, and Johnson eventually named Storen as the team’s closer for the playoffs. In a taut series filled with momentum swings, the Nationals split the opening two games in St. Louis, with Storen getting the save in Game One against the NL Wild Card winner. They then lost Game Three in D.C. to fall behind in the series, before evening things up with a tense 2-1 victory in Game Four. In that game Storen pitched a scoreless 9th of a 1-1 tie, and then was credited with the win when Jayson Werth ended a 13-pitch leadoff at-bat in the bottom of the inning by homering to left field.

The Nationals appeared on their way to the NLCS when they jumped out to a 6-0 lead after just three innings of Game Five. No game is over at the end of the 3rd, and by the time the Cardinals came up for their final licks in the top of the 9th, the six run lead had shrunk to two. Still the Nats were on top 7-5 and three outs from advancing with Storen jogged in from the bullpen. Carlos Beltran greeted the closer with a double, and moved to third on Matt Holliday’s ground out. Storen then fanned Alan Craig, putting Washington just one out from victory. He even got a two-strike count on each of the next two hitters, pushing the Nationals as close as could be to playoff success.

Fans in Washington know the bitter rest of the tale all too well. Against both Yadier Molina and David Freese, Storen could not deliver strike three. Both men walked, and Daniel Descalso then grounded Storen’s first offering through the hole on the left side of the infield for a two-run single, knotting the game at 7-all. After Descalso stole second, Pete Kozma followed with another single, plating two more runs. When the Nationals went quietly in the bottom of the frame, Washington’s storybook season had come to a swift and brutal end.

After the blown save Nationals’ management said the right things about sticking by Storen, but GM Mike Rizzo’s real opinion was on display when he signed veteran free agent closer Rafael Soriano that winter. Relegated to a middle relief role in 2013, Storen was even sent down to AAA for a time after several ineffective outings. This year Storen, who mixes high heat with sharply breaking off-speed stuff, came full circle. He had an outstanding year in the bullpen, and when Soriano faltered after the All-Star break the 27-year old found himself back in the closer role. For the regular season Storen’s ERA was a paltry 1.12, his WHIP a mere 0.976. He didn’t allow an earned run in his last 23 appearances, and was 10 for 10 in save chances since reclaiming the closer role.

So one week shy of two years since his sad role in an agonizing piece of Nationals history, Storen jogged in from the bullpen in the top of the 9th of Game Two of this year’s Division Series. After missing the playoffs last season the Nationals returned to form in 2014. Washington’s 96 wins were tops in the National League as they cruised to the East Division title. With home field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Nats were a popular pick to go all the way to the World Series. But the advantage disappeared with a 3-2 loss to San Francisco in Game One, making a win in Game Two suddenly crucial.

Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann did his part. After tossing his team’s first no-hitter on the final day of the regular season, he was nearly as good Saturday, allowing just three singles in the early innings and then setting down 20 straight Giants. Tim Hudson was nearly as good for San Francisco, and Washington clung to a 1-0 lead heading to the 9th. With two outs in the top of the inning Zimmermann’s streak ended when the Nats’ starter walked Joe Panik. Although ball four was just Zimmermann’s 100th pitch of the night, the free pass brought Washington manager Matt Williams out of the dugout. In a move that will be second-guessed for a long time if this series now goes the way that seems likely, Williams wasted no time in signaling for his closer.

Storen’s first pitch was a 95 mile an hour four-seam fastball, which Giants catcher Buster Posey lined into center field for a clean single, sending Panik to second. His third offering was a 94 mile an hour slider that third baseman Pablo Sandoval laced into the left field corner, scoring Panik to tie the game and nearly plating Posey, who was called out in a close play at the plate. Storen threw 36 pitches in the nightmare ending to the 2012 season. Saturday evening the nightmare was revisited in just 3.

In fairness to the closer, it must be noted that after Washington failed to score in the last of the 9th, the two teams played another complete game. It took 18 innings in all before the Giants prevailed 3-2. Storen’s teammates had plenty of at-bats to bail him out and failed to do so.

Now the Giants go home to a roaring crowd at AT&T Park, with ace Madison Bumgarner on the mound for Monday’s Game Three. They still have to play the games, but the Nationals and their fans surely know what they are up against. Since 1995, only two teams that lost the first two games at home have rallied to win the best-of-five Division Series. From Opening Day through the long months of the regular season, the Great Game has been in great shape in Washington these past few years. But for the Nationals and especially for Drew Storen, it would seem that T.S. Elliot had it wrong. In the nation’s capital, it’s not April but October that is becoming the cruelest month.

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