VIERA, Fla. -- He trotted to the mound last October, hoping to live every closer’s sweetest dream. He trudged off that mound 33 pitches later, knowing he’d just experienced every closer’s most dreaded nightmare.
Welcome to Drew Storen’s world. Euphoria on its best days. Torture chamber on its worst. Not everyone is cut out for it. But if only the strong survive, count Drew Storen in on that World’s Strongest Man competition.
On the fateful evening of Oct. 12, in Game 5 of a pulsating National League Division Series, he was one strike away from nailing down the final out of an epic, winner-take-all October baseball game. He was one strike away twice, in fact.
He never got that strike. He never got that out. The Washington Nationals never got to celebrate winning the first postseason series in their history. So it was the St. Louis Cardinals who headed for San Francisco. And it was the Nationals who headed for the emptiness of a long baseball winter, wondering what just happened. And how.
The shock, the pain, the jolting memory of nights like that don’t fade easily, no matter who you are, no matter how much strength you think you have stored inside. But they can linger longer, the harder you run from them. So Drew Storen didn’t run. Drew Storen didn’t hide.
Instead, he thought of the profound words once spoken by his friend, Brad Lidge, about what it takes to deal with times like this:
If you face the music, the music goes away.
So face it he did. In the moments after the game, with the cameras and microphones bearing down on his face. And, more importantly, in every moment since.
He learned a long time ago that this line of work is like a day at Walt Disney World when the scoreboard is filled with zeroes and the high-five parade is heading your way. But “the true test is when things don’t go well,” said a guy the Nationals drafted in 2009 because they envisioned him on the mound in spots like this one. “That’s when you’re tested. That’s when you learn the most about yourself.”
So Storen had two choices. He could try to pretend that fateful night had never happened. Or he could own it, accept it, live with it, learn from it.
Feel free to ask yourself: Which road would you have traveled if this were you?
Now here’s how Drew Storen looked at it:
“You’ve gotta learn from it, one way or the other,” he found himself saying on a laid-back spring-training afternoon, as the soothing spring sunshine lit up an otherwise empty ballpark. “You’re either going to get better from it, or you’re going to get worse. But for me, if I just ignored it and acted like it didn’t happen, I was going to get worse.”
And so, one morning a couple of weeks after that final pitch, he woke up to the sound of a voice in his brain, a voice that told him: “It’s time.”
Time to fire up the old laptop. Time to relive an evening that started out all right and turned out all wrong. Time to watch the ninth inning of Game 5, from beginning to end. Time to get better, not worse.
So he sat and watched as Carlos Beltran fired a 95-mile-an-hour heater up the gap for a leadoff double. As Yadier Molina somehow laid off a 2-2 slider at the knees and drew a two-out walk. As David Freese found the courage to take a 1-2 slider on the black, on the way to yet another two-out walk. As Daniel Descalso skipped a game-tying single off Ian Desmond’s glove. As Pete Kozma stroked the 28th pitch of the inning into right for a two-run, game-winning single.
Only once before, in any winner-take-all postseason game ever played, had any pitcher held a two-run ninth-inning lead in his hands and watched it wriggle away. That other time was 20 long years earlier:
Pirates-Braves, 1992 NLCS. Stan Belinda trying to pitch the Pirates into the World Series. Francisco Cabrera playing the role of Pete Kozma. Sid Bream rumbling around to score.
But at least that was proof that stuff like this does happen. And now it had happened to him, on its way to a video player on his very own computer. Yet Drew Storen had no fear of clicking that PLAY button.
He does it all season, replaying both the good times and the bad. So he knew he had to do it here. That, he said, “is how I process things.” By watching them almost like you or I would. On the video screen. Taking it all in from what feels like “an outside-the-body perspective.” A much-needed outside-the-body perspective.
“The view you have out there, when you’re on the mound, it’s completely different,” he said. “But when you watch it [on video], with all the adrenaline gone it’s fascinating, because that’s how you’re able to see the other side. It’s almost like having a debate with somebody and hearing the other viewpoint. It gives you a different view of things, to kind of see the other side and say, 'This is another way to look at it.'”
Then, once he was finished watching it, you know what he did? He did something that few of us would have the fortitude to do: He watched it again. “Multiple times.” Over several days. With the sound muted, because “I wanted the one voice in my head to be mine.”
And after he’d watched for the final time, that voice told him he was going to be OK. That he “didn’t get cute.” That he “didn’t do things I don’t normally do.” That, mostly, he “threw good pitches, and I did what I wanted to do, and I just got beat.” And that can happen, especially when it’s the defending World Series champs you’re pitching against.
But that didn’t lessen the pain of letting down so many friends and teammates who had emptied their tanks to reach that moment in time. Nothing eases that pain. How could it?
“That was the hardest part for me,” he said, “just knowing how much work everyone else had put in. Like I’ve said, I take complete responsibility for it. I was out there pitching for those guys. And if I just go out there and do what I’m supposed to do, we’re not having this conversation.”
Nobody gets through these tests alone, of course. So Storen will never forget the words of his bullpen compadre, Mike Gonzalez, who told him that night: “Don’t let this change you. Don’t let this define you.”
Nor will he forget the words of bench oracle Mark DeRosa, who said: “Don’t worry. You’ll be put in that situation again some day. And next time, you’ll succeed.”
Those words have stuck in his head all winter. And he carried them with him as he swung open the doors of Space Coast Stadium for the first time this spring.
“I can’t go back and change what happened,” Storen said. “The only thing I can change now is what I’m going to do this year. I’m excited to see the group we have in this clubhouse. And I can’t wait to be put in that situation again. I would kill to be in that situation again.”
There’s a slight complication in that scenario, though. The Nationals just went out and signed Rafael Soriano to be their closer. So if they’re handing Storen the ball this October, it’s more likely to be in the eighth inning, not the ninth.
But that’s OK, too, he said.
“You know what? It doesn’t change a thing,” he said. “One of the things that I learned from the whole situation in the playoffs is that, regardless of what happens outside of me, the things I can’t control, it doesn’t change my job. It doesn’t change my job if I’m pitching in a different inning. I still have to get guys out. I still have to throw the right pitch in the right spot. And a ring means more than anything.
“The only way to get better,” he said, “is to focus on getting the guy out that you’re facing. And it starts with the first batter of spring training.”
So this is it, the beginning of the next chapter. And Drew Storen can’t wait to script it.
“Got to keep on writing, right?” he laughed. “Don’t want the book to end on that.”
So he is drawing on the powerful experience he just lived through to approach this spring the way he approached the winter just past: Make sure to do something every day to make yourself better.
“Every day, you have a fork in the road,” he said. “That’s the way you've got to look at it, especially in this game.”
Some men are seduced by the glamour and the perks of life in the big leagues. But those who take it for granted eventually get devoured. It’s the guys who get what really matters, at its essence, who survive.
So one thing that all of this has reminded Drew Storen is that “you've got to learn to love the grind, learn to love that competition,” he said. “Not the lifestyle. Not any of the things that come with it.
“For me, what happens between the lines is what I love,” he said. “That’s part of what I learned, honestly. It tests you, right? You sit there and you say, 'The thing I love most didn’t go my way.'”
It can be hard to remember at times like this how many things HAVE gone his way in his young career. So we’ll help remind him -- and you.
Over the last two years, Storen has allowed opposing hitters to compile just a .570 OPS. Among relievers with at least 40 saves and 100 innings pitched, that ranks fourth in baseball, behind only Craig Kimbrel, Fernando Rodney and Jason Motte.
He’s fifth in WHIP (1.013) and opponent batting average (.206) among that group. It’s safe to say you've heard of all the names in front of him -- and many of the names in back of him.
So there have been lots and lots of nights that didn’t end the way That Night in October ended. But Drew Storen has learned not to get caught up in those nights, either.
Life is a balancing act, especially when you live that life at the back end of a bullpen. So what we have here is a 25-year-old guy who is determined, more than ever, to keep his balance.
“I don’t want people to feel bad for me,” he said. “I knew what I was getting myself into. And that’s why I love it. I think it comes back to, I love doing what I do, so don’t feel sorry for me if it doesn't go my way. It’s my fault. It’s not like anything else happened that was unfortunate. I don’t expect things to be handed to me.”
So four months after the most difficult blown save of his life, Drew Storen is determined not to let That Night define him. And if history is any guide, there’s no better path to accomplishing that than accepting responsibility for the bad times with the good -- and then moving forward.
“Own it. Learn from it. And fix it,” he said. “That’s what I've tried to do. Face the music. And it’ll go away.
“And,” said Drew Storen, a man who faced every note of that symphony, “write some new music.”