There's no arguing that Drew Storen is a very talented pitcher who possesses great stuff. You don't save 43 games in a season and post a 2.96 ERA over your first 164 major league games without having elite ability.
But during a couple stretches this season, one of which has lasted over the last three weeks, Storen has really struggled.
The 25-year-old has allowed either an earned run or an inherited runner to score in each of his last three outings.
Over his last 10 appearances, spanning 8 2/3 innings, Storen has pitched to a 11.42 ERA, allowing 12 hits and four walks with nine strikeouts. He has a .316 batting average against and a .960 OPS against in those 10 outings, with two home runs served up, as well.
Last night, Storen allowed three runs over 2/3 of an inning, turning a 1-0 Nats deficit into a four-run Pirates lead in the ninth. After the game, manager Davey Johnson was asked whether sending Storen down to the minors was something the Nationals were considering. He was asked a similar question today.
"I don't think anything's off the table," Johnson said.
Johnson indicated last night that he didn't feel the Nats had many options better than Storen as far as bullpen arms currently outside the big league roster, and he might be right. Aaron Barrett has been impressive this year, posting a 1.99 ERA with 54 strikeouts and 13 walks over 40 2/2 relief innings at Double-A Harrisburg, but this is his first year above high Single-A.
It could be argued, however, that Storen could benefit from a stint in the minors to work out his issues in a less-stressful environment. He could then rejoin the Nats for the final stretch, hopefully back in a groove.
"Anything's possible," Johnson said, when asked whether a stretch in the minors could be a positive thing for Storen. "I'm an optimist and I have a lot of patience. I don't give up on people. I mean this has been a long time. He had 43 saves, he pitched great. Guys hit .180 on him from both sides. Now, lefties are hitting (.333) and right-handers (.253). So, to be continued."
Johnson feels Storen has gotten into a habit in the past of thinking too much on the mound, instead of just attacking hitters and letting his stuff speak for itself. Last night, catcher Wilson Ramos said he thought Storen's confidence has gotten a bit shaken when he's gotten into jams lately.
So how much of Storen's struggles are due to the mental side of things as compared to the physical side?
"This year he's struggled a little bit dealing with the new role, so that, mentally, it affected him and his way of preparing was totally different," Johnson said. "To me, it's always mental ... With the different configuration of the bullpen which was totally different from last year to this year, and then he wasn't in a closing situation like he was in '11. So all that was causing some engine blowups.
"Closing, as far as mentally, is the easiest because if you're ahead, it's you. This year is different. He was the right-handed side and (Tyler) Clippard was the left-handed side. So that was a big adjustment for him. So a lot of mental stuff."
The change in roles certainly can play a factor, but that said, Johnson even seems a little surprised that side of things has impacted Storen as much as it has.
"With his stuff it shouldn't, but if you sometimes go out there and just start throwing, trying to throw too hard," Johnson said. "In '11 one of the things he was really good at was he located the ball good. He had good stuff, but he located it. Mentally when you don't locate, sometimes you're not full committed to it. You think it's not as important, it's like a secondary job."
Meanwhile, the Nats have a lot of moving parts as far as their pitching staff is concerned right now.
Ross Detwiler will be out for another month. Taylor Jordan is on an innings limit and will be shut down sometime in the coming weeks. Ross Ohlendorf, who has been in the Nats' bullpen for the last month, will move into the rotation tomorrow for a spot start and could be considered for more starts in the near future.
Ryan Mattheus will come off the disabled list tomorrow as the Nats' 26th man for their doubleheader against the Mets, but Johnson indicated that Mattheus isn't guaranteed to stay up with the Nats once they need to get their roster back to 25.
Things all seem to hinge on how the Nats want to play things with Jordan, who has pitched well in his five starts with the Nats but whose remaining innings this season are dwindling.
"There's a Plan A and a Plan B," Johnson said. "He could be optioned back out for a couple days because he probably worked both games, and then recall him. So it all goes into when we have the discussion about what's best for Jordan.
"We could hold back on the young starter and ... keep him as insurance, in case something else happens. Or we could just run the string out. It's going to boil down to what's really the best thing for him and his development."