Nearly three weeks ago, Drew Storen was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse after a stretch that saw him allow 14 earned runs over 11 appearances.
It was the first time Storen had been optioned to the minor leagues since his initial promotion to the bigs in May of 2010, and it hit him hard. He had lengthy conversations with manager Davey Johnson, pitching coach Steve McCatty and general manager Mike Rizzo after the demotion, and was frustrated with the decision made by the Nats’ front office.
Then, after taking a couple days to get over the flu, Storen got to work.
Today, the right-hander was back in the Nationals’ clubhouse, having been recalled before today’s series finale against the Giants. Storen got hugs and handshakes from teammates, saw his nameplate hung back above his locker and made himself back at home in a clubhouse he badly missed.
“This is kind of like opening day for me right now,” Storen said. “It’s like five weeks or six weeks left, whatever it is, of the regular season, and just help these guys win and really get after it. I can’t really control or change what’s happened this year, but one thing I can do is really be productive at the end and help these guys win. So I’m excited to get back. I’m pretty damn happy about it, to be honest with you.”
In his time with Syracuse, Storen made six appearances. He allowed seven hits and four earned runs over his first four innings, but didn’t allow a baserunner in his final three appearances, striking out four over 2 1/3 hitless frames.
The key for Storen while down in the minors, he says, was getting back to his old mechanics. He ditched the stiff front hip part of his delivery and returned to a high-leg kick, something that he reinforced by pitching out of the windup when he first got to Syracuse and started working with pitching coach Greg Booker.
Storen will continue to pitch out of the stretch, but the high-leg kick has allowed him to get his throwing arm up, find a consistent arm slot and pitch with a downhill plane, something that had been lacking this season when with the Nats.
“It’s just getting back to what I used to do, so it was a pretty easy transition,” Storen said. “It’s what I’d been doing for years before anyways, so it’s just getting back to what made me successful. ...
“It was good, like I said, to get back to throwing athletically and not having to think about it so much. I was getting to the point where I was thinking a little bit too much about what I needed to do mechanically instead of just lifting and throwing and throwing strikes and attacking the hitters. So it was good to make that adjustment, and I’m ready to go.”
Storen’s now sporting a fresh buzz cut, a hairdo that he says wasn’t at all symbolic, just a decision he’d made after getting a sub-par trim somewhat recently. The initial disappointment he felt after getting demoted was quickly countered by a desire to get back to the big leagues as quickly as possible, and so he says he didn’t allow himself to wallow in self-pity or bitterness.
“You go through things and just kind of accept it for what it is and realize you can’t change it,” Storen said. “It was a great opportunity for me to get better. And I wasn’t pitching like myself, and it allowed me to get everything back on track. That’s what you need.”
After the demotion, Storen heard from numerous friends and family members offering their support and telling him to keep his head up, which he says was much appreciated. He also heard from some teammates and read the comments made by Tyler Clippard, who was critical of the way that he feels the Nationals handled Storen after he blew a save in Game 5 of the National League Division Series last year.
“What he said, regardless of what you think of the comments, just for him to stand up for me like that really means a lot and shows you what a great friend and even better teammate he is,” Storen said. “It takes a lot. It meant a lot to me, I know.”
During his time with Syracuse, Storen had to get used to life in the minor leagues again. He rode on three-hour bus rides during road trips. He took care of his own postgame meals. He adjusted to the dramatically different lifestyle.
Asked whether all that made him appreciate the big league life even more, Storen broke into a giant smile.
“Yeahhhhhhhhhhhhh,” he said. “Yeah. That’s pretty ... yeah.”
Storen has been through quite a roller coaster ride over the last two years. He saved 43 games in 2011; he had elbow surgery to remove bone chips in 2012, a procedure that cost him half the season; he pitched to a 2.37 ERA after returning from the DL; he blew the save in the decisive game in the NLDS; he dominated in stretches this year while also having massive struggles during other periods.
The 26-year-old has seemingly been through it all already. Well, not quite.
“We still need the World Series,” Storen said. “Let’s just do that this year and we could really have a heck of a story, right? There’s just a lot, man. That’s what makes you better. That’s part of it. You get through it, man. I’m here. Like I said, man, I’m here. I’ve got a jersey. I’m here. That’s all that matters.”