Last night, with the Nationals up four runs in the ninth inning and one out away from a win over the Astros, manager Jim Riggleman pulled Drew Storen for Sean Burnett. The choice, in the moment, was purely about winning a game; Storen was struggling, had given up a homer and Riggleman liked Burnett facing switch-hitter Geoff Blum, who has a .107 average against lefties this year.
The consequences beyond that were more abstract - did Riggleman rattle the confidence of his young reliever by pulling him? Will it affect Storen going forward? - but the manager wasn't overly preoccupied with the notion that he'd thrown Storen off his game by pulling him.
"You're concerned about that, yeah," Riggleman said. "But that's secondary to winning the ballgame. You hear things like that a lot of times. It's like pinch-hitting for a guy - well, you might shake his confidence. Taking a pitcher out of the game, you might shake his confidence. For me, those are things that are said. You can't quantify them. If a guy's confidence gets shaken that easy, then he might not be the right guy."
Storen has mostly been impressive in his rookie season, but since the Nationals traded Matt Capps to the Twins on July 29, the 23-year-old hasn't exactly surged into the closer's role. He's got a 6.75 ERA and 2.1 WHIP in September after a 5.84 ERA and 1.135 WHIP in August, and blew a three-run lead in a save situation on Sunday.
He has allowed 11 earned runs in 16 1/3 innings of save situations, the same number he's allowed in 34 1/3 innings of non-save situations.
Storen has struggled with his fastball command, but Riggleman said he is throwing more strikes with the pitch, which is part of the reason he's getting hit harder. Once he figures out how throw more precise strikes and miss bats, the Nationals believe the results will follow.
He might do some of that work in a long apprenticeship to becoming the closer. The Nationals have been careful not to anoint Storen the closer yet, though he's gotten most of the work in save situations since Capps was traded. But Riggleman cited Mariano Rivera's development as a setup man before becoming the Yankees' closer, and seems willing to stretch out the process with Storen, too.
"I have no doubt that Drew's going to look at that as a situation where, 'I'm not the closer here yet. I aspire to be that. But it's results-oriented, and I'm going through the process of becoming a closer here someday,'" Riggleman said. "We really think that he will, but it doesn't have to be in the year '10. It doesn't have to be in the year '11."