Nationals have their answer – Storen should close games

  • Ralph Thompson Jr
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Remember last Friday, when the Nationals lost in extra innings to Philadelphia? Remember when Washington manager Matt Williams stated he would “address” the late-inning closer role? Remember how Saturday Williams said he would consider different relievers, based on situation?

Fast-forward to Sunday afternoon – the Nationals leading by a solitary run going into the top of the ninth. Williams sent right-hander Drew Storen in to finish the game. Storen did just that, needing 17 pitches (11 strikes) to get the save.

“Small sample size”, some might say? But, when you consider Storen’s career, it’s not a small sample size at all. Storen has closed games before, at the major league level. Let’s look back to 2011:

73 games, 75.1 innings, 52 games finished, 43 saves, 5 blown saves, 3 relief losses, 8 home runs surrendered, 20 walks, 74 strikeouts (3.7 K/BB), ERA+ 140, FIP 3.32, WHIP 1.022.

Let’s look at his September that year:

13 games, 12.2 innings, 10 games finished, 9 saves, no blown saves, one relief loss, no home runs allowed, 7 hits, 5 walks, 17 strikeouts (3.4 K/BB).

The only game he lost was 8 September that year, against the Dodgers. Storen came into the game in the top of the ninth to face the visiting Dodgers with the score tied at 4. Storen gave up the three runs that decided the game.

Most would agree that Storen’s 2012 was a struggle, with his stint in the minors to get back his effectiveness. Most would also agree that his 2012 postseason against the Cardinals was a disaster. Or, was it? Looking at the line stats, Storen held St. Louis scoreless in his first three appearances that series. His only bad appearance was his last one. Unfortunately, that was the deciding game 5 in a best-of-five.

This isn’t to dredge up bad stuff from the past regarding Storen. Au contraire, it’s meant insinuate that he is stronger for the experience. I expect him to use that tough time to redouble his effort, and succeed going forward. Storen has weathered the storms, endured one of the worst things a pro athlete can experience. In 2011, he failed on the big stage. But, this isn’t 2011. Today, he is better prepared from an emotional standpoint to handle the pressure of the closer’s role.

That said, what about the erstwhile closer Rafael Soriano? This part is difficult. This year, his fastball averages 91.2 MPH, and he throws it 59% of the time. His fastball doesn’t have the movement it had in other years. His slider averages 85 MPH, and he’s used it 27% of the time this year. Hitters are hitting .282 off Soriano. Essentially, Soriano isn’t fooling nor dominating any hitters these days.

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Soriano will be 35 in September (Storen turned 27 in August). It’s not a crime to admit age catches up to every pro athlete. Soriano has lost nearly 4 MPH on his average fastball since 2007. Lost velocity isn’t the be-all or end-all, but if a pitcher loses velocity and movement on his pitches, what does the club do?

At this point, if the Nationals have dreams of a deep postseason run, I believe they need to choose one man and stick with him. In this era of specialization, it’s difficult for relievers to come to the park on a particular day without having a clearly-defined role. Going forward, Soriano may get relegated to “long man”/sacrificial lamb duties.

In no way am I saying release Soriano. His experience could still prove helpful down the stretch and in the postseason. However, his recent struggles mean he is not a true option to close games for the Nationals at this time.

To me, this is similar to hockey, when a team with playoff dreams goes to a hot goalie late in the regular season. Tactically, sometimes this type of decision is necessary.

Bottom line: when Williams is next asked about identifying his closer, he should say “Drew Storen” and be done with it.

Note: Monday night against Atlanta, Storen struck out the side in getting the save. Watching the game, one could almost sense the relief (no pun intended) wash over the crowd with the final strike.





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