Nursing a 3-1 lead in the top of the eighth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals - a team they had not beaten in eight consecutive tries - the Nationals nearly saw it slip away.
Struggling relief pitcher Tyler Clippard took over for starter Gio Gonzalez to begin the inning, and needed 26 pitches to record his first out. He began by allowing a double to Jon Jay, a hard-hit liner off the Geico sign in right field. Jay took eight pitches before getting hold of a 81 mile per hour changeup.
Clippard then walked Matt Carpenter on five pitches to put two men on with Jhonny Peralta up next. Peralta worked a 12-pitch at-bat, including eight foul balls, before grounding out and finally giving Clippard a chance to breath. But Matt Holliday was up next, and Matt Williams opted to reach into his bullpen again.
Out came Drew Storen to face the six-time All-Star, as Clippard walked way having thrown 26 pitches. Williams explained the reasoning afterwards:
"Just, that's a lot of pitches. Holliday's numbers are not as good against Drew. It was just a lot. If we want him available tomorrow, he's going to run into 30-plus. It's just not a favorable matchup."
Holliday entered the day 1-for-7 (.143) off Storen with two RBI and three strikeouts. He was 1-for-3 with two walks off Clippard.
Williams' decision quickly paid off. Holliday swung at the very first pitch - a 95 mile per hour two-seam fastball - and popped it up to Adam LaRoche in foul territory.
"I went two-seamer in there, so that way, if you miss over the plate, you get a little bit of movement to hopefully help you out," Storen said. "He’s a good hitter and he’s gonna attack you early, so especially guys in that position, it’s about trying to miss that barrel."
Storen would need only four pitches to retire the next batter, Allen Craig, on a groundout to Ian Desmond. Five pitches for Storen, and two outs.
Storen was there the last time the Nationals beat the Cardinals, and earned the win. That was Oct. 11, 2012 in Game 4 of the National League Division Series.
The problems that have since haunted the Nationals - and Storen - in matchups with the Cardinals are well-documented. Though it was Game 17 of the regular season, Friday night represented somewhat of a minor breakthrough for the Nats.
"Anytime you can beat a team like that, you’re going to be excited about it," Storen said. "It’s never easy to beat those guys and late in the game, they’re grinding it out. They’re a tough team all around, so like I said, anytime you can get one from those guys, it’s a good night."
Williams praised Storen's effort after the game, as the five-year pro continued what has been a nice beginning to his 2014 season. Storen now holds a 1.29 ERA and 0.290 WHIP through eight appearances. He had the velocity and movement on Friday night that made him a reliable late innings reliever just two years ago.
"Drew has closed before so he understands those types of situations," Williams said. "He's been the guy in the ninth inning and he's comfortable in the seventh, eighth or ninth. I would imagine there will be a time this year where [Rafael Soriano] has thrown three in a row and not available where Drew will have to close it out, too. He's ready for the ball at anytime."