It is the role of a team’s closer to be tasked with getting those last few precious outs to seal a victory. It is the fate of the closer to take the brunt of the blame when things don’t turn out like they’re supposed to. Even if there were countless other moments and plays in the game that could have had a greater impact on the outcome, it is what that last pitcher of the night does that bears the greatest scrutiny.
Friday night, the Washington Nationals set the kind of record that is entirely undesirable by blowing a 6-0 lead to the St. Louis Cardinals, the largest comeback in the last game of a playoff series in MLB history. The Cardinals clawed their way back into the game bits and pieces at a time, but entering the 9th inning the Nationals led 7-5, just three simple outs from securing a berth in the National League Championship Series.
The task of securing those three outs was bestowed to Drew Storen. The Nationals’ closer would go on to surrender four runs to the October magic of the Cardinals, a team that similarly came back from being down two runs in the 9th inning and 11th inning in Game Six of the 2011 World Series against the Texas Rangers.
Storen is being harshly criticized for the role that he played in the Nationals’ loss (particularly on the volatile and primitive environment of Twitter). Even the math points out that Storen had a negative 85.2% win probability added (subtracted?) in this game. However, Storen should not be the unfortunate soul required to carry the full burden of such a shocking, season-ending loss.
This was Storen’s third consecutive night in a row to pitch. During the 2012 regular season, Storen only pitched on three straight days two times, and both of those times he didn’t pitch complete innings. In one set, he threw a combined two innings and 37 pitches. The other set was 1.2 innings and 22 pitches. Entering tonight’s game, Storen had already pitched two innings and 37 pitches in the two days prior. By the time he allowed the game tying hit to Daniel Descalso, he had already thrown an additional 22 pitches. He would end the night throwing a total of 33 pitches. For a pitcher who missed the first 127 games of the season due to elbow surgery, that is a lot of strain to put on his arm in such a short time frame. His manager didn’t put him in – and especially leave him in – a position to succeed.
Part of the reason Storen’s pitch count ran so high was because of two walks he issued to Yadier Molina and David Freese. Both walks came on full counts, and both came with two outs, meaning that Storen had the Cardinals down to their last strike twice with the lead still intact. Those at-bats may have ended much sooner if the home plate umpire had seen one of two borderline calls differently.
Pitch #1 to Molina (called ball, would have sent count to 0-1, next pitch was a strike):
Pitch #4 to Freese (called ball, would have been strike three to end the game):
Before Storen entered the game, Washington relievers Edwin Jackson and Tyler Clippard each gave up a run in their innings of work, allowing the Cardinals to get their foot in the door before breaking it down in the 9th inning. Jackson likely only pitched because the Nationals pitching staff was running rather thin, and to make the obvious second guess statement: it may not have been running so thin had the Nationals treated the shutdown of Stephen Strasburg differently.
The Nationals have a long offseason ahead to rehash and replay each excruciating moment from this loss. Hopefully, Drew Storen can find some peace with it, and realize that it wasn’t entirely his fault.
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