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Significant moment No. 6: Storen’s demotion

Dec 26, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT

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As we count down the final days of 2013, we are counting down the 10 most significant moments of the year for the Nationals. These aren’t necessarily positive (or negative) moments, and some didn’t even take place on the field. All, though, were significant in the big picture and defined the Nationals’ year. We continue today with significant moment No. 6: Drew Storen’s midseason demotion to Syracuse, and Tyler Clippard’s subsequent sharp criticism of the organization…

Why did Drew Storen struggle so much through the first half of the 2013 season? Was he unable to move beyond the sting from his blown save in Game 5 of the National League Division Series the previous fall? Was he unable to cope with the Nationals’ surprise addition of veteran closer Rafael Soriano over the winter, leaving him in a lesser role in Washington’s bullpen? Or was he simply unable to pitch well, regardless of any outside factors?

We’ll never know the answer to that question, but we’ll always remember the lowest point of a low season for Storen. It came on July 26, a day that began with a flu-ridden Storen letting five runs score over the span of four pitches to the Mets and ended much later that evening with his demotion to Class AAA Syracuse, a transaction that prompted Tyler Clippard to sharply criticize the organization for its handling of his teammate and close friend.

There already were rumblings that Storen could be in danger of a demotion, with the Nationals permitted to add a 26th player to the roster (Ryan Mattheus, activated off the disabled list) for their day-night doubleheader against New York but then required to drop someone at night’s end.

But who could have imagined it would all happen in such an upsetting fashion, beginning with Storen’s disastrous ninth-inning appearance in the first game of the twinbill?

The Nationals already trailed 6-0, and with Mattheus unable to get out of the inning, manager Davey Johnson signaled for Storen to trot in from the bullpen. This only a couple of hours after Johnson had claimed Storen was unavailable to pitch due to flu-like symptoms. The right-handed indeed carried a fever that morning, but Johnson said he was informed during the game Storen was available if needed.

The ensuing events were beyond painful to watch. David Wright lined Storen’s first pitch to left for an RBI single. Marlon Byrd followed two pitches later with an RBI double to right-center. And then Ike Davis crushed Storen’s very next pitch down the right-field line for a 3-run homer that put the Nationals in an 11-0 hole and left the crowd of 33,858 booing the once-popular reliever.

Some six hours later, after the Nationals had won the nightcap on Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off homer, Storen (now sporting a 5.95 ERA) was summoned into Johnson’s office and informed he was being optioned to Syracuse, the first demotion of his career.

“This is what’s best for him,” Johnson said that night. “He’ll probably have a hard time coming to grips with that. But it is the best thing for him.”

That sentiment wasn’t entirely shared throughout the Nationals’ clubhouse. Clippard lashed out against the organization for its treatment of Storen, particularly the offseason signing of Soriano and the message he felt that sent to the man who was on the mound for the ninth inning of 2012′s final game.

“I think there’s a lot of things that led to this that could’ve been prevented,” Clippard said, holding back tears at one point. “You know, you basically send a guy a message this offseason, for having one bad game, that he’s not the guy for the job. He’s only human. I mean, it’s going to get to anybody. …

“I can understand, you know, after the devastation that happened last year, maybe trying to make a change and say: ‘Hey, we’re going to bring in somebody that we think can get it done in that big situation. It’s just the wrong message to send, I think.”

In the end, the demotion may have been good for Storen. He returned to the majors three weeks later and dominated the rest of the season, posting a 1.40 ERA over his final 21 appearances.

But the specter of that late-July day and night continues to loom, and there remain questions about the Nationals’ faith in Storen, questions that surely will crop up again at some point in 2014.

  1. sjm308 - Dec 26, 2013 at 7:57 AM

    Like most of Mark’s articles, I was enjoying the content, thinking of what to comment on and then I read that last sentence. Maybe I live in dreamland but I did not hear or see a lot about the lack of confidence in Storen for this coming year, and I actually have a few sources.

    Anyone who has options, is not playing well, and with other players available to step in should be sent down. Its not their right to remain on the roster and actually hurt a teams chances. This is a business whether we like that or not and the bottom line to this business is winning. Storen dealt with the demotion, was not happy about it, but he fixed what needed to be fixed and came back a better pitcher. I truly expect that he learned from this and I also expect that he will be our closer in 2015, not Clippard. He is young, intelligent and fearless.

    What now throws a monkey wrench into my above thoughts is the possibility that Mark is correct and there are still doubts. Since Davey is gone, when Mark says “there remain questions about the Nationals faith in Storen” and infers those doubts could crop up again in 2014 that can only mean Rizzo or McCatty. The owners have not meddled in on-field affairs (thank god) so if Mark writes this, does Storen know it as well?

    Lots of folks here think he is a trade chip and while I think Clippard has more value, I guess I can see that. Storen is young, under team control for longer than Clippard and actually less expensive. Not only that, I honestly feel he will be a great closer and I would not trade him. I also would do everything I could this spring to make sure he knows I have all the confidence in the world in his talent. I can’t see anyone performing well if they believe management is doubting them and that goes for everyone playing, not just Storen.

    Go Nats!!

  2. jd - Dec 26, 2013 at 9:30 AM

    sjm308,

    This was one major screw up by Rizzo and Davey from the get go and contributed in no small measure to the final unfortunate results for the team. Instead of supporting their closer who after all did a great job leading up to game 5 they did the exact opposite, sending a poor message to Storen and the rest of the team.

    Storen is partially to blame here because he also handled his demotion poorly and in fact validated the Soriano signing even though the later only pitched so so all year (I don’t care about the number of saves, that stat means nothing).

    I only hope that Williams has enough of an open mind to swap his closers if performance warrants it.

    • sjm308 - Dec 26, 2013 at 10:30 AM

      Agreed

    • Jw - Dec 26, 2013 at 11:08 AM

      Davey had nothing to do with signing Soriano. That was all Rizzo. Recall Davey’s comment at the time about not knowing they needed a closer. But once he was given Soriano, Davey’s only option was to use him in the role he was acquired for. It’s in no way Davey’s fault that Storen couldn’t handle the demotion.

    • Sonny G 10 - Dec 26, 2013 at 5:35 PM

      +1

  3. Eugene in Oregon - Dec 26, 2013 at 10:14 AM

    We often seek to explain athletes’ success or (especially) their failures in terms of their ‘attitude’ or ‘make-up’ or ‘confidence-level’ or whatever. Baseball closers — along with a few other specialty players in high-pressure positions (think football quarterbacks and placekickers) — are particularly susceptible to such a diagnosis. And sometimes baseball better closers bring such scrutiny onto themselves by cultivating an eccentric image (e.g, ‘The Mad Hungarian’ or Brian Wilson). But I’ve always been taught to seek the simplest explanation when formulating a theory or confronting a problem. In Drew Storen’s case the straight-forward explanation is that he had fooled around with his mechanics and his approach. When he returned to his old, more successful delivery, his command and ERA improved. This all was laid out in a WashPost article about a month ago:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/nationals-journal/wp/2013/11/22/inside-drew-storens-turnaround/

    To be clear, I’m not trying to argue that the ‘mental side’ of the game isn’t real; I accept that attitude does matter. But the reason I’m not particularly concerned about Mr. Storen in 2014 isn’t that I think he’s more confident. It’s because I think he rediscovered what works — physically — for him.

    • Doc - Dec 26, 2013 at 10:54 AM

      Maybe it’s his engineering side, but Drew has always tinkered with his delivery. Davey, a few seasons back, referred to him as ‘Tinkerbell’.

      Let’s hope that he’s found something that he can stick with. A great kid, with lots to contribute on the ball field.

      • Jw - Dec 26, 2013 at 11:13 AM

        The thing is, if you’re in a good mental state there’s nothing wrong with tinkering. Look at Cal Ripken. He tinkered with his stance constantly, and he’s in the HoF. It’s only when you get into a mental funk that tinkering becomes an issue.

      • therealjohnc - Dec 26, 2013 at 9:17 PM

        Ripken tinkered, and tinkered, and tinkered, and it may well have not helped all that much. After the age of 30 he had a total of two full seasons with an OPS+ over 100, and those only just. I’m not convinced that his tinkering really had much to do with ending his slumps or increasing his performance.

  4. Joe Seamhead - Dec 26, 2013 at 12:43 PM

    I’m with sjm308 in that I think that Drew Storen will be fine. I also agree with Jw in that Soriano wasn’t Johnson’s doing. I’m more concerned with how Jerry Blevins performance will be in general, and particularly against LH hitters. Will he be a Gorzalany type guy for us, or a LH- ed version of Craig Stamman, or a Sean Burnette? [At least he shouldn't be a Zack Dukes!]

  5. Another_Sam - Dec 26, 2013 at 1:05 PM

    seamhead, sjm: right on, on Storen being fine. IMHO.

    joe, i also agree with your succinct summary of the bullpen.

    Regarding Storen feeling dissed and being affected by the perceived diss, I dismiss that idea. As I’ve opined before, I think it wrong to impute my workplace experience to the locker room. These guys are elite, higly compensated world class entertainment professionals — professional athletes. Their workplace environment is nothing whatsoever like ours and the same dynamic doesn’t apply. Just IMHO. But I’ve opined on this before.

  6. janebeard - Dec 26, 2013 at 1:07 PM

    I agree that it must be Rizzo who has the doubts. I disagreed with bringing in Soriano and I still wish he was gone. And they should never have pitched Drew that day he was sick. I get the “this is a business” thing. I do. But these are PEOPLE and their genius springs in large part from who they are as people.

    Much as I love Drew, it feels to me like he’d be better off playing somewhere where he has the confidence of the management. He can be a clod-blooded killer and I don’t want to see him take the mound against us. But it would be better for him, I think.

  7. dgourds - Dec 26, 2013 at 1:09 PM

    I don’t think Rizzo mishandled the Storen situation last year. If anything, Storen’s putrid first half validated Rizzo’s acquisition of Soriano. And his demotion to AAA was well warranted. He stunk. I give a lot of credit to the AAA pitching coach who got him back on track to finish the season on a positive note. Storen’s pouting was unprofessional. If you want to play with the big boys, you’ve got to be accountable. And there’s no crying in baseball Mr. Clippard.
    Where I possibly fault Rizzo is who he chose as his closer and how much he paid him. But the jury is still out on that one. If Soriano regains command of his slider and becomes the dominant closer he was with the Yankees, Rizzo will again be validated. The Werth deal looked horrible–now it looks okay. The Span deal looked horrible–by the end of 2013 it looked okay. Maybe in 2014, the Soriano deal will look worthwhile. Right now, though, I feel the Nats’ bullpen is their biggest weakness–especially at closer. To pay $14million/year for such mediocrity is such a waste. I hope Soriano raises his game for his walk year and earns his paycheck.

  8. letswin3 - Dec 26, 2013 at 1:17 PM

    My thoughts on Drew may be challenged by some of you, but that’s how I continue to learn more about this great game and all it’s nuances.. SJM308 said above that Drew is young, intelligent and fearless …I agree with the first two attributes, but my impression is that, when he gets in a jam (every time, not just game 5), the game slows to an incredibly slow pace, and Drew starts overthinking. His hands sometimes seem to literally tremble when he comes to his set position, and it looks like, regardless of what pitch is called, he is only willing to locate it somewhere on the extreme edge of the black. I think he needs to understand that he has more than enough “stuff”, and more than enough defense behind him, and just get the ball, get the sign and chuck it. In all fairness, I’ll have to say that when he returned from being sent down, the old leg-kick and commitment to the strike zone looked to be returning …. now, if he can maintain that approach, and keep the pace of the game in line with avoiding overthinking, he can be a very valuable contributor in 2014 and beyond. Drew was probably needed as a closer earlier than might have been ideal, but he is a smart guy and will likely find a way to validate the high draft choice used to select him. I’m a big Storen fan and expect him to be closing in 2015, and even possibly later in the 2014 season.

  9. natswinanother - Dec 26, 2013 at 2:11 PM

    Long time reader, first time responder. Mark, thanks for all your articles you do an incredible job! So I choose to do my first post on none other than Drew Storen. (I would love to post on Michael Morse, but I realize I have to let that go). I have seen this written before, but it never sticks, remember that in 2012 Drew was out injured until the summer, and he was eased back for the rest of the season never pitching in three consecutive days except once and one of those games had a pitch count of only a couple pitches. Fast forward to the post season, Davey pitched Drew in the final three games of the post season. Putting Drew in a position that he hadn’t been all year. I still don’t know why Davey pitched Drew in game 3 in mop up duty in a St. Louis huge blow-out win? But if Davey had his eyes on the prize he should have known that down 2 games to 1, that Drew would need to pitch in games 4 and 5. We all know what happened in game 5. I hope that Matt Williams does a better job of managing the situations, like hitting Span 8th against lefties, but Davey frequently didn’t. Anyway, I point to Davey having a huge role in setting Drew up for failure. Rizzo did the right thing in 2013, they could only send him down, it was hard to watch him pitch so ineffectively. Hopefully Drew picked up more fire, I think that if there is hesitancy that is the little that the Nats have in Drew, he needs to have or at least show more confidence. He obviously has the pitches and is a smart guy. Once he has the mental approach of Clippard he will be a star.

  10. unkyd59 - Dec 26, 2013 at 2:39 PM

    Hey, all! I hope everyone’s season is Joyful!!! Did anyone see this, over at SBNation?

    http://www.federalbaseball.com/2013/12/23/5239342/nationals-catcher-sandy-leon-tearing-up-winter-league-pitching

    I know it’s “winter league pitching”, but is it wrong to be encouraged by this, and wonder about Leon’s chances of heading north, with the other 24 best?

    • NatsLady - Dec 26, 2013 at 3:03 PM

      I’ve been following Leon for a while, and have mentioned a couple of times that I don’t think he and Solano are interchangeable. Leon can hit and I haven’t seen evidence that Solano can. Yes, Leon had a bad season in 2013 (But a good one, offensively, in 2012); however, you don’t know the cause of it–was he injured? was he focused on defense or on managing the pitchers as the cycled through AA, getting promoted at a rapid rate? It’s so hard to know about catchers’ development, and in addition, he is a switch hitter.

      This guy is also doing pretty well in winter ball. http://mlb.mlb.com/milb/stats/stats.jsp?sid=l133&t=p_pbp&pid=572191

  11. NatsLady - Dec 26, 2013 at 3:31 PM

    Regarding Storen. I finished watching all of Ken Burns “Baseball” including the recent segments, which include the 2004 WS. Not only did Mo Rivera blow the final game of the 2001 WS, he also blew a 2-run lead in the Red-Sox/Yankees playoff game, which was eventually won by the Red Sox. This is the best closer ever and a sure HOF’er.

    So there is something to be said for sticking with Storen… Now, I don’t know why at the last minute Rizzo signed Soriano–maybe he had money to spend, maybe Boras talked to the Lerners, maybe Rizzo wanted to pad his bullpen, we just don’t know. But if Storen had problems with the “demotion” (and from what Clippard said, he apparently did) then he learned a bitter lesson with the demotion. Yes, it CAN happen to you, just like it happened to Danny…You are not ENTITLED to the closer job (any more than Clippard was), especially, most especially, on a “contending” team.

    Again, if it were only one young player mishandled, I might fault Rizzo. BUT, when I watched what happened with three players (maybe four if you count Zach Duke, and maybe five if you count Dan Haren), then I start saying to myself, “where are Davey’s vaunted people skills?”

    (1) If Henry was injured then he should not have been pitching. If Henry was NOT injured, then Davey managed to destroy whatever confidence he had in himself with the result that we all watched him disintegrate before our eyes.
    (2) If Danny was hurt then he should not have been playing, If he changed his approach and that was not to Davey’s liking, then that needed to be worked out in spring training. Again, we watched Danny and Davey deploy their stubbornness to the extreme, and who’s the grown up here?
    (3) If Storen was upset about the demotion, he needed to get talked to about growing up. If his mechanics were awry, that needed to be addressed. Again, a talented player was not handled well and it cost.
    (4) Who knows what was going on with Zach Duke, but strangely, he pitched well for the Reds (for a while, anyway). Was he misused in his role in the bullpen, or what?
    (5) Dan Haren made no secret of the fact that his “problems” were mental more than physical, yet he was allowed to stew for half a season before he got the “break” he evidently needed. Someone needed to have a serious talk with him (in, like, MAY!!) about what was going on with his family or his adjustment to the East Coast or whatever. Again, lack of communication.

    These are the problems you are paying a manager for, and Davey–to me–was just not there, not getting involved (except for holding a grudge against Danny), not intervening or finding a veteran to intervene with Haren, etc.

    Finally, if Davey didn’t “know” we needed a closer then that’s on him. He was out of the loop because he went to South Africa…

    If Davey didn’t like the construction of the bullpen as regards lefties, then he had plenty and I mean plenty of opportunity to say so, including in spring training when an open competition for lefties was held. (I know, because I tracked it on my blog). Davey didn’t take Abad north despite stating that Abad was good enough to make the team He could have taken Abad instead of Mattheus, for example. Davey spent the off-season traveling, instead of focusing on the team (as you see Williams doing). Managing a major-league team is a year-round job, bottom line, and Davey took the off-season off.

    • jd - Dec 26, 2013 at 3:45 PM

      Well put NL.

  12. Joe Seamhead - Dec 26, 2013 at 3:33 PM

    It amazes me how many people speak about Johnson as if he was just something other then a manager with one of the highest winning percentages of any manager in ML history. In the 2012 playoffs I also questioned his leaving Drew Storen in to do the mop up duty in game 3, but the fact is that Johnson not only managed that team, which almost nobody picked to win the NL East, to the best record in ML Baseball in the regular season, but he also managed the team to within one strike of winning that series, in spite of Gio Gonzalez not being able to hold a big lead, followed by Storen not being able to deliver that one more strike several times in a row. Davey Johnson didn’t lose that game for the Nats. No, Drew Storen, who I love, tried to nibble his way through the ninth, and neither the ump, nor the Cards were biting. Davey Johnson turned the game over to his closer with the lead and his closer didn’t get the job done.
    We all hope that Matt Williams is going to instantly be a better and smarter manager then Davey Johnson was, but I feel pretty certain he will be second guessed many times as a ML manager in ways that none of us have dreamed of yet. That said, I think he is taking over a team with the talent to possibly make him a genius.

    • NatsLady - Dec 26, 2013 at 3:49 PM

      Joe, I have no problem with how Davey managed Game 5. I’ve said that many times.

      You see my list of problems and they are related to 2013. Yes, Davey has a great record, and Davey got the Nats to the playoffs ahead of time despite plenty of injuries (though the PLAYERS might have had something to do with that). But he didn’t “manage” the 2013 team, not the people part of managing it. He cruised on his record and on his “experience” and didn’t realize that 2013 presented a different set of problems than 2012.

      I suspect Williams will make plenty of mistakes, agreed. Nature of the job. They will be different mistakes than Davey’s, certainly. His errors will be those of inexperience and over-enthusiasm, and I don’t doubt he’ll alienate some players if he carries through with a lot of emphasis on fundamentals, defense, etc. I expect him to be energetic and involved, to get thrown out of games, and maybe to micro-manage more than he should.

      No, I don’t think Williams will be “instantly better and smarter” than Davey. What I think is that he will study hard, work hard, and press hard–and not have the Hall of Fame on his mind as Davey did during that last August-September run. If we had won one game more each month of the season, ONE GAME, that would have been 92 wins. We need to win every game that’s within shooting distance.

    • jd - Dec 26, 2013 at 3:52 PM

      Joe,

      I don’t think anyone is questioning Davey’s pedigree. I may be wrong but this is how I interpret it:

      1) Davey thought his team was so much better than the opposition that he could win going away without putting in the off season and ST work one normally needs to put in.

      2) When things started going south Davey did not have the stomach or the energy to fight through it, he simply checked out. I think Davey believed like many of us that’s it’s ‘still early’ until it got late.

      Put simply, Davey had a great year in 2012, he was juiced and excited to once again manage a quality team and he pushed all the right buttons. In 2013 he didn’t become stupid but he became complacent and tired.

      • NatsLady - Dec 26, 2013 at 4:12 PM

        jd, that’s the way I see it also. I also suspect he was in pain a lot of the time. Also, I think he didn’t think Atlanta would be as formidable as they turned out to be–particularly with Uggla and BJ not contributing. Like a lot of us, we saw the hot start, but the Nats caught up in May (within a half game, if I recall) and I think he figured that they would stumble and the Nats would keep rolling.

        Plus, and this wasn’t really his fault, when the injuries came, the bench was hopeless. What was his fault was that he got discouraged, and he showed it.

  13. Joe Seamhead - Dec 26, 2013 at 3:47 PM

    NatsLady, I have always liked your posts, but though we’ve never gotten into it over Davey Johnson, we’ve never seen eye to eye on him. But how do you know that Davey didn’t talk to Drew about growing up, or how involved he was with dealing with Haren’s or Henry’s confidence problems? None of us were in the locker room. I have heard a lot of former players get candid about their ex mangers in unflattering ways, but every player that I have ever seen quoted about Davey has had nothing but great things to say about him. Every manager gets questioned by some of their moves, mostly after the fact, but there is a lot to be said that a person can go from being a smart guy to a dumb ass pretty quick when managing a baseball team. Still love ya, NL!

    • NatsLady - Dec 26, 2013 at 3:58 PM

      I don’t know, of course. But unlike a lot of people, I thought Davey was a fine tactical (in-game) manager), particularly in the NL. You rarely saw mistakes, and even when he did make a “mistake” he either explained his reasoning or I could figure it out if I thought about it. He had a good sense of when a game was basically not winnable, and didn’t throw resources into a lost cause, rather, he conserved them for another day (sometimes driving fans crazy, because fans think every game is winnable).

      But a manager, to me, has to be judged also by his “people” skills, and that’s where I think he was lacking in 2013. And that’s not even counting whether he could have handle LaRoche differently or Harper’s injuries. He was old and tired and in pain a lot (probably a lot more than we knew) and he figured these things would work themselves out as they had in 2012, and he wasn’t pro-active. That’s in my view, that’s what I would mark him down on if I were his supervisor and he were coming to me for his 2013 performance review.

      • therealjohnc - Dec 26, 2013 at 9:26 PM

        Meh.

        I’m disinclined to speculate on levels of concentration, motivation, or interaction (and the way any such interaction might have gone) in circumstances where, when I step back, I realise that I have no foofnarfeling idea what actually happened in a clubhouse. Much less in someone’s mind.

        I also cut Davey some slack because, as a major league manager, he is by definition one of the 30 dumbest people on the planet. Because every other person on the planet seems to have a better idea of what should or should not have been done by a major league manager.*

        *Numbers 31-60 on the “dumbest people on the planet” list are the General Managers of the 30 major league teams. They are smarter than the managers only because they can fire the managers, but the managers cannot fire them.

  14. Joe Seamhead - Dec 26, 2013 at 3:48 PM

    And Zack Duke just was a guy who was good enough to lose with.

  15. Eugene in Oregon - Dec 26, 2013 at 7:37 PM

    Any thoughts on the final five? Mr. Zuckerman is calling them ‘moments’ but he’s already included a 29-game hit streak in the list, so he’s not being overly limiting about the definition.

    I’ve got to believe Bryce Harper’s crash into the LA wall and/or his subsequent move to the DL will be at #1.

    After that, I’m not sure of the order, but he’ll have to include some ‘moment’ to serve as a proxy for Danny Espinosa’s extended non-performance. Similarly, something about Ryan Zimmerman’s defensive struggles — maybe the game where Stephen Strasburg stared him down after a costly error? Am I remembering that right?

    Also, I suspect we’ll see something about Jayson Werth’s performance, but beyond that will be a ‘moment’ built around Ian Desmond or Jordan Zimmerman? I guess time will tell.

    • Joe Seamhead - Dec 26, 2013 at 8:19 PM

      As you said, Harper’s injury, but also Eck’s firing, Davey’s retirement, the Navy Yard shootings, and the whole HBP nonsense with the Braves would be possibilities,

    • ArVAFan - Dec 26, 2013 at 8:35 PM

      Yes, you are remembering correctly about Strasberg glaring at Ryan after an error, which makes his “tip of the hat” to RZ at the end of the CGSO even more appropriate.

      If there were a “moment” related to Ryan Z’s recovery (which should be part of the 2013 season perspective for him), I would pick that date sometime in late August where he threw overhand across the diamond. Accurately. It was only about that time that he could trust his shoulder to do what he wanted it to do. Or, perhaps his “is he trying to make up for the first part of the season by hitting a homer practically every day?” period?

  16. nats128 - Dec 26, 2013 at 10:11 PM

    All the rehashing and debating on Storen gets you nothing. Storen didnt get it done at the most critical time. The blame can get shared by lots of people I guess.

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