The Nationals dropped a 5-3 ballgame to the Phillies tonight, but it was evident from the way Davey Johnson spoke after tonight's game that his main concern wasn't the ballgame, but the ongoing struggles of Drew Storen.
Storen allowed two runs in the eighth inning tonight, leaving him with the loss and bumping his ERA up to 5.21 on the season. That number can drop quickly if Storen strings together a few scoreless outings but, right now, he's having trouble keeping runners of the basepaths and putting up zeros.
"He's not been where we want him to be," Johnson said. "He's not locating like he usually can. I noticed tonight he changed his set-up delivery where he dropped his hands down around his waist. I actually like that. He was quicker to the plate. Looked like he was free and easy. Made some good pitches. But I gotta have him. He's important to our bullpen. That situation where I'm counting on him to do it."
Storen walked Michael Young with one out in the eighth, then allowed back-to-back, two-out RBI hits that gave the Phillies the lead. The first run-scoring knock was a well-placed grounder that bounced over the first base bag, while the second was a line drive double roped into the right-center field gap by Domonic Brown.
"I think at times he's been relying on his stuff and throwing the ball hard," Johnson said. "A good hard breaking ball. Tonight, I thought he threw a couple good changeups to (Ryan) Howard and backdoor breaking ball. That was really good. But it's just location. It's always at this level location. And you get by on stuff just a little while. You just have to make good pitches. Walking a guy, that's the death toll there. That's been a little bit of his problem. I think he's put a lot on it and try to just get ahead and get fine. We sure need him. Especially with (Ryan) Mattheus out."
Storen said his confidence isn't an issue at this point. Johnson agrees.
"I think he's got worlds of confidence," Johnson said. "Again, it's just making pitches. He was unbelievable in '11 in making his pitches. And now he's trying to right the ship and trying to do too much and not trusting his stuff as well as he should."
The problem right now is that with Mattheus out with a broken hand, the Nats need Storen to be effective in his late-inning role. Rafael Soriano and Tyler Clippard have both been pretty solid, but Storen needs to get back on track to help shoulder some of the load. That's why Johnson says he'll keep running Storen out there in big spots.
"We're in a pennant race," he said. "There's not a lot of easy spots out there. I don't think he's intimidated by anything late in the ballgame. Your confidence can get shattered a little bit when you don't have the success you want. But he's certainly capable. He just needs to get going."
Outside of Storen's struggles and the fact that the Nats went 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position and left 11 on base, there were a couple positives in this game. Adam LaRoche stayed hot with a homer and two RBIs, Denard Span had three hits and a stolen base, and Dan Haren went six strong innings, striking out 10, the most Ks notched by a Nats pitcher this season.
"I thought he threw the ball good," Johnson said. "He had a rough outing on the road (his last time out). He pitched a good ballgame and kept us in it. Had some fresh guys in the 'pen I wanted to give an opportunity to show what they can do rather than take him further."
That was Johnson's reasoning for pulling Haren after six innings despite the fact he'd thrown just 88 pitches. In addition to wanting to try to push across the go-ahead run in the sixth, Johnson wanted to spread some of the pitching workload around, so he called upon Henry Rodriguez, who hit a batter but delivered a scoreless frame.
"(Haren's) going to be at about max 100 (pitches)," Johnson said. "I got a chance to pinch-hit and also got some guys in the bullpen that need work. Like I said, (he's) also coming off a rough outing. Give me a good six innings and win the ballgame and hopefully we go ahead."
They didn't go ahead, and in the eighth, they fell behind for good. Tonight's loss leaves tomorrow's series finale as the rubber game of this three-game set.