Tuesday, March 22, 2011, 5:56 p.m.
By Mark ZuckermanNationals Insider
VIERA, Fla. -- Drew Storen is a bright guy, we all know that. He went back to Stanford last fall to continue his pursuit of an engineering degree. He described his pitching mechanics Tuesday afternoon using a word -- "biomechanically" -- plenty of his teammates with the Washington Nationals probably can't even pronounce.
Sometimes, though, Storen's inquisitive and analytical nature can get the best of him. Sometimes, he starts over-thinking things, which can compound the mistakes he's already making.
So perhaps the most important thing Storen said Tuesday about his 1-2-3 ninth inning against the Houston Astros was the simplest thing he said: "I needed that."
He sure did.
Not to put too much stock in spring training relief appearances, but Storen clearly hadn't been throwing well this month. Before Tuesday, he had pitched in seven exhibition games, giving up two or more runs in five of those outings. His ERA when he took the mound against Houston was a gaudy 11.74.
Most importantly, the right-hander's spot on the Opening Day roster was starting to look uncertain.
Then, in the span of seven pitches, Storen put a lot of that criticism and speculation to rest. Protecting a 3-1 lead, he retired all three batters he faced, throwing first-pitch strikes to each. He got Carlos Corporan to pop out. He got Michael Bourn to ground out. And he got Clint Barmes to fly out, securing his first save of the spring and perhaps re-securing his standing within the organization.
"Any progress he makes to get away from where he's been the last couple weeks, he'll be on our ballclub," manager Jim Riggleman said afterward. "He's earned that."
Storen hasn't quite locked down a job yet. He needs to continue this upward trend over the final week of camp. But the Nationals have long considered the 23-year-old, who posted a 3.58 ERA and five saves as a rookie, a crucial piece to their bullpen.
"There's some history there, a little track record," Riggleman said. "He came up and really did a good job for us last year. That's the sample of work you draw from more than a few spring training outings."
Track record or not, Storen knew he needed to start producing some positive results after a wretched start to his spring. Opponents were hitting .400 against him prior to Tuesday's appearance, with seven batters having reached safely in his last 2 13 innings.
So Storen made a subtle mechanical change this week, one actually suggested to him by teammates Jayson Werth and Matt Stairs. The two veterans, who faced Storen as opposing batters last season, noticed he had stopped using the funky "slide step" delivery that threw them off during previous encounters.
After watching video clips and consulting with coaches both current and past, Storen realized his mechanics (and results) were much better when he used the slide step as opposed to a higher leg kick. So he made the tweak and immediately saw it pay off during Tuesday's game.
"That's priceless feedback that you don't really get," he said. "You don't really get to pick the brains of somebody you've already faced before. I think a lot of that helps."
Even if Storen regains his top form over the next week, he's unlikely to open the season as the Nationals' closer. With no one reliever distinguishing himself this spring, Riggleman is prepared to go with a committee of arms in the ninth inning, including Storen, fellow right-handers Tyler Clippard and Todd Coffey and lefty Sean Burnett. It's far from an ideal situation, but Riggleman does believe it can be a "very workable situation."
The bigger issue than choosing a ninth-inning reliever may be choosing the best combination of seven relievers to open the season. If Burnett, Clippard, Coffey and left-hander Doug Slaten are assured of jobs -- and if Storen continues his upward progression to lock up his spot -- there are only two remaining positions and six potential candidates, all right-handers: Henry Rodriguez, Elvin Ramirez, Collin Balester, Chad Gaudin, Craig Stammen and Brian Broderick.
Rodriguez (who is out of options), Ramirez and Broderick (both Rule 5 draftees) each must make the club or risk being lost to another club. The hard-throwing-but-wild Rodriguez has been shut down for the last few days to work on mechanics with pitching coach Steve McCatty, and time is running out for him to start appearing in games again. Ramirez hasn't pitched in any game yet due to shoulder soreness and could open the year on the DL. Broderick (0.71 ERA in eight games) has pitched very well but has never been a reliever and has never pitched above Class AA.
Balester, meanwhile, tossed another scoreless inning Tuesday to lower his spring ERA to 1.93. He could be a victim of the options game -- he can be sent to the minors without first going through waivers -- but he's certainly pitched well enough to earn a spot.
"He's making a case for himself," Riggleman said. "He just won't allow himself to get out of the mix, and that's a good thing."
Gaudin and Stammen are starters by trade, but either could be kept as long relievers who can start in an emergency.
The 11 pitchers still in the bullpen mix collectively have posted a 4.57 ERA this spring, a number that goes down considerably when you throw out the four-digit ERAs owned by Storen and Clippard (12.79).
Nationals executives and coaches insist they're not worried about those high ERAs, pointing to the similarly bad numbers posted by Burnett, Clippard and former closer Matt Capps last spring. All three wound up dominating as soon as the regular season began.
"I'm comfortable with the bullpen as of right now," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "I know there's a lot of gloom and doom I read in the newspapers from you guys. You wrote the same things last year. I remember exactly what you wrote last year. This is spring training. It's spring training for a reason. These guys are preparing themselves for the regular season. My opinion of our bullpen going into Opening Day hasn't changed a bit. I still feel that we're going to have a productive bullpen, and I like the guys we have."
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.