Shelter from the Storen

There are times when the best way to build confidence is to surrender belief

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Belief is a funny thing. Friday afternoon in New York, a 32-year-old tennis veteran named Roberta Vinci did not really believe she would beat Serena Williams in the U.S. Open semifinal, not in the way we would normally use that word. She booked a flight out of New York for Saturday, the day of the final. When a friend told her she could win, she laughed. When the first set ended as expected, with Williams cruising through an easy 6-2 destruction, Vinci told herself to just enjoy the moment (her first grand slam semifinal) and to just try and put the ball back into the court and make Serena work for her inevitable victory.

Of course, we now know that Vinci won the match – an upset for the ages – and as I wrote in the moment, it does seem to bring into question the idea that you need to believe to win.

Then, there’s the contradictory case of Drew Storen. In baseball, when you look at the big data, it’s often hard to find the narratives that sportswriters and storytellers have been pushing for more than 100 years. Belief? Clutch hitting? Chemistry? The value of grit? The wisdom of sacrifice? The significance of pitching (is it 90 percent of baseball)? The extreme difficulty of pitching in the ninth inning? These things sound likely and important, but the numbers tend to motor on without them, which is why I suspect so many people mistrust the numbers, and why I suspect so many others mistrust the gut.

Drew Storen, as an individual, seems particularly driven by the gut. It’s probably silly to speculate why, though it could be as simple as his being the son of a fine sportscaster, Mark Patrick. My own daughters, I am shocked to find, tend to believe more or less what I believe about sports even though we never talk about it and, as far as I know, they have not read one sports story I’ve ever written. The other day our younger daughter, Katie, just blurted out that intentional walks are unfair. It was like looking in the mirror.

In any case, Storen grew up just as the Nationals did. From the start, he had a good fastball and a devastating slider, the reliever’s Happy Meal. His first year, 2010, the Nats lost 93 games, and he unsteadily worked his way into being a regular in the bullpen. The next year, he became the closer and saved 43 games in 48 opportunities. The Nationals were just a game under .500.*

* I saw that pal Brandon McCarthy made a bit of a Twitter stink the other day about the habit of saying that an 80-81 team is a “game under .500.” If there was a .500 team in the division, the Nationals would technically finish a HALF-GAME back, meaning that the correct terminology (according to Brandon) should be “The Nationals finished a half-game under .500.”

Well, I would say I 37 percent agree. The reason I 63 percent disagree is that when someone says that a team is any number of games under .500, they are often referring to how many more games they need to win to get to .500. As of this writing, Baltimore is four games under .500 – 68-72. They do not need to win two games to get to .500. They need to win four.

Now, where Brandon is right is after the season ends. If the Orioles finish the year 79-83, they did not really finish four games under .500 – two more wins would have made them .500. So it’s all pretty confusing. I’d say this: If someone finished 79-83 and you said they finished two games under .500, nobody would get it and there would be mass confusion and the earth would be swallowed whole by giant marshmallows. Brandon, buddy, some fights ain’t worth fighting.

During the 2011 offseason, Storen had a bone chip removed from his elbow, which forced him to miss more than half of the 2012 season. As it turned out, that was the Nationals’ breakthrough season. Storen eased his way back in after the All-Star break, pitched very well, and then was named the closer in the playoffs. Everything seemed in place in October. He threw a scoreless inning to preserve a 3-2 victory over St. Louis in Game 1 of the NLDS. He pitched another scoreless inning in a big loss in Game 3, then pitched beautifully again and was awarded the victory in Game 4. All seemed right with the world.

And then came the all-important Game 5. The Nationals went into the inning with a two-run lead and the people in the crowd were going out of their heads – three outs away from Washington’s first series victory in the postseason in 70 or so years. Storen had been just about flawless up to then. He came in and gave up a double to Carlos Beltran, but then he got two outs. One out away. Nothing about Drew Storen’s young career suggested what would happen next.

He walked Yadier Molina, who, it must be said, is not easy to walk. He then walked David Freese to load the bases. He gave up the game-tying single to Daniel Descalso, who hit .227 that year. He gave up the game-losing single to a rookie, Pete Kozma, who had only played in a few games. The Nationals lost. The moment was devastating for Washington. No one felt it more deeply than Drew Storen himself.

So … now what? If you can look at it in a big picture way, nothing had really changed. Storen had one bad moment. That’s all. True, the timing for that moment was terrible, but he’d pitched extremely well for two years, and he’d pitched extremely well in the playoffs before that game. Heck, ONE DAY EARLIER, he came into a tie game, and pitched a dominating inning, so you couldn’t say he was incapable of pitching under extreme pressure. He had played a critical role in the ascent of the Washington Nationals. That was the big picture.

But, when something that traumatic happens to a baseball team, the big picture tends to become fuzzy. Three months after the loss, Nationals GM Mike Rizzo signed Yankees closer Rafael Soriano to a two-year, $28 million deal.

“Drew Storen is a closer,” Rizzo told reporters. “He’s going to be a closer. He’s got closer stuff. He’s got a closer mentality. And by no means was the signing of Rafael Soriano … based on one inning and one game at the end of the season.”

Look at that quote again and ask yourself: Then what was it? If Storen was a closer – with closer stuff and a closer mentality and all that closer goodness – why in the world would you spend $28 million on a 33-year-old closer who, incidentally, was not as good as Storen the previous two years?

Soriano 2011-12: 107 innings, 44 saves, 1.215 WHIP, 10 HR, 105 Ks, 42 walks, 3.56 FIP.

Storen 2011-12: 105.2 innings, 47 saves, 1.013 WHIP, 8 HR, 98 Ks, 28 walks, 3.05 WHIP

Soriano is almost eight years older than Storen; he did not grow up in the Nationals’ organization the way Storen did; he had never been a closer for a team for more than a year. Why in the world would you bring in Rafael Soriano unless, well, unless the obvious: That one inning had triggered Storen doubts in the minds of people who make the baseball decisions in Washington?

Storen pitched horribly as a setup man in 2013. For four months, the National League absolutely teed off on him, hitting .295 and slugging almost .500. Why did it happen? There are never easy answers for such things – Storen talked often that year about “command.” But what is command? In a general way, it means throwing pitches exactly how you want and where you want. In a general way, you could argue, it is baseball’s version of “belief.” The lack of faith in Storen may have played a role. And maybe it didn’t. We can’t get into other people’s heads — heck, we have a hard enough time getting into our own heads.

In late July, the Nationals sent Storen down to the minor leagues, apparently to get his head together. He pitched horribly in Syracuse and then came back up and … was absolutely terrific the rest of the year. Go figure. From mid-August to the end of the season, he gave up three runs in 19 innings. He did not allow a homer. The league slugged .214 against him.

Meanwhile, Rafael Soriano was kind of mediocre. He blew six saves, a career high, and opposing hitters seemed quite comfortable when he came into the game. This could only have surprised someone who is unaware of the aging pattern in baseball. In 2014, Soriano started off brilliantly – the league managed just 19 hits and one home run against him in his first 37 appearances – but no one really seemed to buy it. And then, Soriano went in the tank – the league hit .305 and slugged .505 against him the rest of the year. In early September, he blew a three-run lead and exited to a symphony of boos. “We’ll address it,” Nationals manager Matt Williams told the media. The Nationals were playoff bound again after a hugely disappointing 2013 season, and they needed someone they could count on to close games.

Yep. They turned back to Drew Storen.

Well, Storen had pitched fantastic baseball all year. Whatever command or belief or mechanical issues he’d had in 2013 were now worked out. He’d added a new changeup to his arsenal of pitches. First time out, he struck out two in a scoreless inning and he did the same in his second outing and that was more or less how he pitched all season. Through September 6, he had a 1.37 ERA and Matt Williams brought him into close out a one-run game against Philadelphia. Storen did that. Williams called on him to close out a game the next night and the night after that, and Storen did that too. In all, he was called in to close out 10 games in an 18-day period. He did not give up a single run.

Then came the playoffs – and more pain. In Game 2, Jordan Zimmermann pitched 8 2/3 innings of shutout baseball. Then he walked Joe Panik and Matt Williams made a bizarre decision: He decided to pull Zimmermann — though he’d only thrown 100 pitches and been dominant – and bring in Storen to get the final out.

On the one hand, you could say the Nationals were only showing great confidence in Storen (and none in Zimmermann). On the other hand, it looks like the desperation move of someone managing scared. Whatever the case, it didn’t work. Storen gave up a single to Buster Posey and a double to Pablo Sandoval – Posey was thrown out at the plate or the Nationals would likely have lost right then … but that would have been preferable to what followed. The game turned into an 18-inning horror show for Nationals fans and ended in a loss anyway.

Storen pitched again two days later, with the Nationals up, 4-0, a clear effort to help him regain whatever confidence had been shattered. He gave up a single and a double to lead off the inning, but then did settle down to get out of the inning with only one run. He did not get to pitch again.

So … now what? Well, Mike Rizzo tried a different strategy after this postseason disappointment. The Nationals let Soriano go and did not try to sign a veteran closer. “We trust Drew,” Rizzo told reporters. He said that Storen was penciled in as the team’s closer and that was that.

And Storen repaid Rizzo’s confidence this year by becoming one of the best closers in baseball for for four months. He saved 29 games in 31 opportunities – even in his two blown saves, he allowed just one run and the Nationals came back to win them. The league slugged .244 against him. Unfortunately, Storen and Bryce Harper aside, the Nationals were playing bumpy baseball. The team had been expected to be the best in baseball after the 2014 success and the signing of Max Scherzer. But there were injuries, and there was inconsistent play, and the rotation disappointed, and the bullpen leading up to Storen was shaky. Still, on July 29, the Nationals were seven-games above .500, they were up two games in the National League East …

And Rizzo traded for Jonathan Papelbon to be the new closer.

I’ve already written about the utter bizarreness of that trade. But, on July 30, you saw what Rizzo was thinking. The Nationals led Miami, 1-0, going into the eighth inning. In came Drew Storen, who struck out two and forced a weak groundout. In came Papelbom for the ninth, and he also went 1-2-3, striking out Michael Morse to finish the job. The Nationals were three games up. Everything was roses.

Only, of course, it wasn’t. Storen was gutted by the demotion. Well, of course he was. You can say that it’s a baseball player’s job to play the role that is given to him. You can say that a player too fragile to handle the ups and downs of big league ball is not one to be counted on in the big moment. You can say anything you want. Reality is reality. Storen held his own for a week. And then the roof caved in. Against Colorado, he entered the eighth with a three run lead, he loaded the bases and gave up a grand slam. Two days later, he entered a tie game then gave up a single, hit a batter and gave up the game-losing two-run single. Two days after that, he came into a game the Nationals trailed by a run, he promptly hit another batter and gave up a run-scoring double.

What was happening? There was no obvious answer because there never is an obvious answer. He was throwing as hard as ever. He was mixing his pitches as he had. But, suddenly, batters were just not swinging and missing his pitches anymore. Command? Confidence? Belief? As things got worse, he got worse. The Nationals were falling apart as a team and desperately needed to beat the surging Mets last week just to give themselves a chance at October.

In Game 1, Max Scherzer gave up three homers and a collection of bullpen guys helped the Nationals blow a 5-3 lead.

In Game 2, the Nationals led, 7-1, when the bullpen went haywire in the seventh inning. Blake Treinen gave up two singles and a walk. Felipe Rivero came in to walk the only two batters he faced. And then Storen came in, and he was an absolute mess – he gave up a double to Yoenis Cespedes and then followed with a walk, a wild pitch, another walk, ANOTHER walk and the game was tied. Jonathan Papelbon came in to give up the game-winning homer in the eighth as all of Mike Rizzo’s nightmares came to life.

In Game 3, Bryce Harper hit two home runs and Stephen Strasburg struck out 13 and it still didn’t matter – Storen was brought into the eighth with the score tied and a runner on first and he gave up the season-crushing home run to Cespedes. That was that.

Storen went into the clubhouse, slammed the lock-box on his locker and broke his thumb. He’s gone for the season. Anyway, the season was already gone.

And what is there to learn from all of this? Some will say that Mike Rizzo and the Nationals ruined Drew Storen by alternately treating him with disdain and faith through a stormy few years. Others will say that Storen is simply too temperamental and erratic to be relied on in the biggest moments. What you and I believe probably says more about you and me than it does about Storen.

But maybe there’s something here about belief. Roberta Vinci says she beat Serena Williams without belief … but in a weird way, her lack of belief was a sort of conviction. She kept telling herself to just keep the ball in the court. She kept telling herself to have fun. When she needed to serve out the match, she told herself, “It’s OK. You’ve already lost this game. Just accept that you have lost.” These were the right things for her to think. All of this kept her present, kept her centered in the moment, and this is how people can do great things.

Storen, I suspect, has found all that harder to be centered in the moment. In the end, he cannot blame anyone else for stupidly breaking his thumb in a temper fit or for collapsing after the Nationals demoted him. But there’s a difference. Tennis is an individual sport, all you have is yourself. Baseball is a team sport. Or anyway, that’s what we’re told.