VIERA, Fla. - Drew Storen hasn't taken his spring struggles lightly. He's been peppering anyone he can think of - current and former coaches, teammates, the guys in the video room - with questions, searching for any hint of what he figured was a small, correctable hitch in his delivery that had resulted in a double-digit ERA and whispers that the Nationals' closer-in-waiting might be pitching himself off the ballclub.
"That's the game of baseball," Storen said. "There are times it's really going to cut you down and test you. I think this spring has really been a big test for me. It's been very frustrating. It's one of those things that I think, in the end, it's going to make me better because I've realized some things I think I need to work on. That I can't just go out there and throw. ... I think that's really one of the biggest lessons I've learned."
Now, the 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft is integrating what he's gleaned into trying to reconstruct the familiar mechanics that brought him success and a recall to the Nationals from Double-A last May. The 1-2-3 ninth inning he threw, picking up a save in Washington's 3-1 victory over the Houston Astros on Tuesday, was a quick but positive step forward.
Storen ditched the high leg kick he started toying with at the end of last year and reverted back to the slide step that brought him earlier success. The move takes away a little of the right-hander's power, but restores his ability to disrupt hitters' timing. And the suggestion came from a couple of guys who were, until this spring, opponents who had trouble figuring Storen out.
"I've got to give credit to Matt Stairs and Jayson Werth for saying something about it to me," Storen said after lowering his ERA from 11.74 to 10.38 with only his second clean inning of spring training. "They kind of asked, 'What did you do with the slide step?' and they talked about how irritating it was to face that and how it annoyed the hitters. ... That's priceless feedback."
The result, combined with a tiebreaking two-run homer in the eighth inning by Michael Morse helped give the Nats something to show for left-hander John Lannan's best start of the spring. Lannan checked the Astros on two hits over six innings, walking one and striking out three, but left with a no-decision. Washington's bullpen threw three perfect innings to claim its second straight win after seven consecutive losses.
Manager Jim Riggleman hasn't wavered in his support of Storen, even when foes were battering him like a batting practice pitcher. Turns out that by preaching patience with the 23-year-old, Riggleman gave Storen sufficient leeway to start figuring out what was wrong.
"The thing with Drew - (or) anybody else who struggles a little bit at times during the spring - there's a history there, or track record," Riggleman explained. "He came up and really did a good job for us last year. That's the sample of work you draw from more than a few (bad) spring training outings. Any progress he makes to get away from where he's been the last couple of weeks, (and) he'll be on our ballclub. He's earned that trust level with what he can do late in the ballgame with his quality of pitches."
For the time being, that will include Storen's slide step, which provides the reliever with a comfort-level checkpoint that tells him his delivery is solid - among other advantages.
"The slide step disrupts the timing of the hitter because it's not normal," Storen said. "A lot of hitters go off timing of the leg kick and all that. For me, biomechanically, it ends up working a lot better. There's a lot less moving parts, and when there's a lot less moving parts, you're able to be more consistent."
Consistency wasn't a problem for Lannan, who faced the minimum number of hitters through the first four innings and appeared in complete control, despite the fact that he wasn't happy with his changeup. After his 66-pitch effort, the southpaw threw eight more warmups and 15 more pitches to extend his penultimate start of the spring.
"It's something to build off of," Lannan said. "I felt good in my minor league start a week ago, so just building off the starts that I have and get as ready as possible going into the season. I felt good out there. My changeup isn't where I want it to be, but I was able to battle without it, (using) my slider and curveball, and I was locating my fastball. If I locate my fastball, I'll be all right."
Lannan, like Storen, has sometimes struggled to find consistency. Storen, like Lannan, has tried to discover something positive from his internal battles.
"I've kind of been scrambling, trying to figure out what I've been doing wrong," Storen said. "I could sit there and say, 'This is what I need to do.' And I knew every time out this is what I needed to do; it was just a matter of executing like I've talked about. Today, I made the right mechanical adjustments to execute."
All part of a young player's maturation process, Riggleman pointed out.
"Guys tinker with stuff," the manager said. "Hitters tinker with batting stances and their hands and their strides and all that. Even though you've done something a long time, you make an adjustment and the next thing, that little adjustment becomes a big adjustment."
And, sometimes, a big relief.
"Adjustments have been the story of my spring. Step in the right direction. I needed that," Storen said.
Now, onto the best and worst performances of the afternoon:
Lannan: Granted, he wasn't facing the 1927 Yankees, but even working through an Astros lineup with four legit major league hitters with relative ease is a good sign for the lefty. Lannan will have one more start in spring training; it'll be hard to improve on six innings of two-hit domination.
Alberto Gonzalez: Two more hits raised the utility infielder's average to .354 - and perhaps increased his stock among the flock of scouts following the Nationals closely.
Collin Balester: Another scoreless inning lowered the right-hander's spring ERA to 1.93 in nine outings. Balester deserves a spot in the bullpen, but since he's got minor league options left, he might get squeezed off the 25-man roster. "You know what's going on," Balester said. "You just try to make it as hard as possible for them to make a decision. All I can do is just throw good."
Matt Stairs: The veteran pinch hitter was in the wrong place at the wrong time after walking in the seventh. A bouncer off the bat of Jerry Hairston Jr. between first and second knuckled as Stairs chugged by and bounced off his leg. The result, by one of baseball's quirkiest rules: Stairs was out, the inning was over and Hairston was credited with a hit. More bad luck than dubious, but not a lot to choose from in a tightly played victory. In a regular season game, Riggleman would have pinch run for Stairs. But Riggleman wanted to keep him in the game to play first base.
What to watch: Right-hander Henry Rodriguez, he of the 100 mph fastball, hasn't pitched since Thursday, and Riggleman said there are no plans to get him in a game over the next few days. Rodriguez has been doing intensive bullpen and side session work with pitching coach Steve McCatty to work on mechanics. Once McCatty feels comfortable with what Rodriguez is showing him, the righty acquired from Oakland in the Josh Willingham trade will see game action again. He's still a lock to make the team because he's out of minor league options, but Rodriguez has to demonstrate more solid mechanics before he'll pitch in a game. Sometimes, teams come up with a phantom injury near the end of spring training to facilitate a move to the disabled list and a couple of more weeks of side work. With the arms race in the Washington bullpen getting to crunch time, that could be a mutually beneficial solution allowing Rodriguez to continue working and a reliever who is throwing better (like Balester) to get a roster spot.
Coming up next: Wednesday is the Nationals' lone off day of the spring. No games, no workouts, save for any pitchers who need to work to stay on schedule. In that case, they would throw to minor leaguers. But the Nats are trying hard to limit the need for any activity from their major leaguers. The Nationals return to game action Thursday in Lakeland against the Tigers with right-hander Jordan Zimmermann opposing Detroit righty Rick Porcello.