Zuckerman: Storen Still Learning Mental Game

Zuckerman: Storen Still Learning Mental Game
September 13, 2010, 10:31 pm
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Monday, September 13, 2010, 6:31 p.m.
By Mark Zuckerman

ATLANTA -- The numbers say Drew Storen is pitching extremely well, certainly for a 23-year-old rookie only 15 months removed from college. His ERA is 3.17. He's notched three saves in four opportunities. He's allowed only four of 27 inherited runners to score. And he hasn't been scored upon in any of his last five appearances, despite putting nine men on base in five innings.

So why does the Washington Nationals' young closer insist he's not satisfied with the way he's been throwing?

"Because that's not me," he said. "It's not me to have those cardiac innings where you're just on the edge. That's just not how I do things. I shouldn't be doing that."

Admittedly a perfectionist, Storen isn't content to pitch his way out of a jam. He believes he should never put himself in those situations in the first place, like on Sunday when he loaded the bases in the top of the ninth against the Florida Marlins before striking out Scott Cousins to keep the Nationals within one run heading into their final at-bat.

It's all part of the mental aspect of pitching in the big leagues that Storen is still learning. A cerebral ballplayer who plans to go back to Stanford during the offseason and complete his degree in mechanical engineering, he has no trouble thinking when he's standing on the mound staring down a big-league hitter.

"If anything, I'm trying to overthink it," he said. "You start making a bunch of adjustments and make it a lot harder than it needs to be. I think I've been trying to out-stuff guys too much and not trying to out-pitch them."

Storen met with Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty following Sunday's game and sought advice on how to overcome that tendency. He emerged with a better understanding of one of the key lessons every young pitcher has to learn: The harder you try, the tougher it is to succeed.

That Storen has managed to figure that out only four months into his major-league career -- plenty of guys still struggle in that department after years at this level -- bodes well for his long-term chances of success. Of course, it would help matters if Storen had a few more opportunities to close out games before the end of his rookie season.

Since Matt Capps was traded to the Minnesota Twins on July 31, the Nationals have entered the ninth inning holding a lead of three runs or less only six times. Sean Burnett has successfully converted his two save opportunities, both against the left-handed-heavy Arizona Diamondbacks. Storen has saved three of his four opportunities, though his last one came way back on August 29 against the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Nationals aren't winning many games right now, and the ones they are winning haven't been close contests, creating a dearth of save situations. All Storen can do is try to treat every relief appearance as through he's protecting a one-run lead in the ninth, even when he's not.

"But there's really no substitute for those tight, pressure situations," he said before Monday night's game against the Atlanta Braves. "So I'm kind of looking forward to the next opportunity where I get to do that."

The upcoming week could present some intriguing opportunities, with the Nationals playing six straight on the road against NL East contenders (they travel from Atlanta to Philadelphia this weekend for a three-game series against the Phillies).

Manager Jim Riggleman, who believes Storen will be a full-time closer some day, insists the club isn't anointing the rookie as his only ninth-inning reliever yet, certainly not until the kid gets more opportunities to pitch.

"I want to see him in big situations, period, whether it's the eighth or ninth or whatever it is," Riggleman said. "I want to see him challenged in those situations. But we just haven't been able to get in those situations."

To date, the toughest venue Storen has pitched in might have been Dodger Stadium, where he earned his first career save. A similar opportunity this week at either Turner Field or Citizens Bank Park would probably trump that.

"These are tough ballparks to pitch in," he said. "I think that'll be a big test for me, if I do get to come in, especially in Philly. That's something I'd get fired up for. I wouldn't say I'd rather pitch on the road, but I like it. I like the pressure. I want everybody rooting against me."