In 6 2/3 innings pitched this spring, 26-year-old former Nationals closer Drew Storen gave up nine hits, six walks and six earned runs (8.10 ERA) with opposing hitters posting a .310 batting average against him in Grapefruit League action.
Storen endured a tough 2013 campaign in which he was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse for a stretch before returning to finish strong with 19 1/3 innings in the majors that saw him allow just three earned runs (1.40 ERA), while holding opponents to a combined .200/.263/.214 line.
The signing of Rafael Soriano to a two-year/$28 million deal to serve as Nationals closer reportedly rattled the Nats' 2009 first-round pick in spite of the fact that Nats general manager Mike Rizzo said it was actually a move that was made to help the former Stanford Cardinal closer, whose ninth-inning issues in Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series brought an abrupt end to the Nationals' first playoff run.
"(Storen) is a young closer that was thrust into the closer's role as a very young man and a very young major leaguer," Rizzo told reporters at Soriano's introductory press conference. "We feel that we benefit having (Soriano) on the club, not only by pitching the ninth inning, but also by mentoring a good young potential closer in Drew Storen."
A year after the Soriano signing, having worked through his struggles, Storen explained this winter that he tried to learn from what transpired in 2013.
"It wasn't ideal, obviously," he said. "But you can't argue with the results when I came back. So I'm happy with where I'm at right now and I think that's kind of the main thing."
Storen picked up where he left off once spring training ended and he was back in the majors working out of the Nationals bullpen.
In 9 2/3 innings in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings in March/April, he allowed just three hits and one earned run (0.93 ERA) while walking one, striking out 12 and holding hitters to a .097/.125/.194 line.
"In spring training, I think his command was a little bit off," first-year manager Matt Williams said in late April. "And I think that's spring training. And his first outing, especially, he wanted to throw the ball really hard and lacked some command. But since that first outing, it's dialed in really well for him."
Williams also praised Storen's versatility, which gave the manager options in the late innings.
"I expect Drew to be ready to pitch at any point," he said. "He could pitch the seventh, he could pitch the eighth, he could close if need be, and he's done it before and had success doing all three."
His early-season success has continued in May. In 8 1/3 innings, the right-hander has given up six hits, a walk and one earned run (1.08 ERA), while striking out seven and holding opponents to a .194/.242/.290 line.
On the year, Storen has a 1.00 ERA, a 2.16 FIP, two walks (1.00 walks per nine innings) and 19 Ks (9.50 strikeouts per nine innings) through 21 games and 18 innings. Storen's BABIP (Batting average on balls in play) is down from a career-high .319 in 2013 to .190 so far this season.
He's relied less on his fastball thus far, using it 51.7 percent of the time, down from 58.5 percent last season and 71.4 percent in 2012, while relying on his slider more, 34.2 percent, up from 24.6 percent in 2012 and 31.8 percent last season, and his changeup, which he's throwing 14.1 percent of the time, up from 4.1 percent in 2012 and 9.7 percent last season.
Opposing hitters have a .111/.200/.111 line when connecting with changeup. Storen's ERA is the seventh-lowest in the Nation League among qualified relievers. The .190 BABIP is the lowest among Nationals relievers, and the sixth-lowest amongst NL relievers so far this season. Storen's 94.3 percent left on base percentage is the NL's sixth highest. His 0.61 WHIP is the second-lowest among qualified NL relievers, behind only Cardinals right-hander Pat Neshek (0.57 WHIP). Storen's 145 batting average against is tied for the fourth-lowest in the National League.
Rafael Soriano's two-year deal includes a $14 million club option for 2015 that vests if he finishes 120 games over the first two years of his deal. He's finished 75 games so far, two months into the second year of his deal, while dominating on the mound as he did when the Nationals went on a run late last season.
If Soriano doesn't reach the 120 games finished that will make his option vest automatically, will the Nationals bring the 34-year-old closer back for a third season in the nation's capital?
Or will they turn the ninth inning back over to Storen, who is making $3.45 million this season and has now returned to the form that allowed him to succeed early in his major league career?