Dec 26, 2013, 6:00 AM EDT
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.
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