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Drew Storen gave up four runs in the eighth, spoiling the Nats' comeback hopes.
Storen, though, isn't quite all the way back yet. He's had his moments of dominance, but he's also had the occasional stinker, as was the case late last night in San Francisco.
Handed the ball by Johnson for the bottom of the eighth inning, with the Nationals trailing 2-1 and trying to give themselves a chance at a late rally, Storen instead turned a tight ballgame into a lopsided loss. He gave up four runs while retiring only one batter, his worst outing to date this season.
Storen hadn't been charged with a run in nearly a month, not since he contributed to the Nationals' July 20 implosion against the Braves, turning a 9-0 lead into an 11-10 loss. But he'd had several more shaky outings since, perhaps setting the stage for something like this to happen.
Over his last seven appearances (spanning five innings) Storen has issued six walks. That's a staggering high total for a reliever who in his first two big-league seasons walked only 2.9 batters per nine innings.
This shouldn't come as a huge surprise, though, because it's all part of the 25-year-old's full recovery from surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow. As is almost always the case with pitchers returning from surgery to either their elbow or shoulder, command is the last piece of the puzzle. And inconsistency usually reigns.
One night, Storen has been able to locate on a dime, such as Sunday's appearance in Arizona when he needed only nine pitches to record three outs. The next, his off-speed stuff appears to have too much movement, so much so that he can't control it.
It's still going to take some time for Storen to get that pinpoint command all the back and to be able to count on it from game to game. That's why Tyler Clippard remains such an important member of the Nationals' pitching staff, and that's why Clippard will remain their primary closer for the foreseeable future.
Would Johnson like to get Storen back into closing situations, to the point where the manager feels comfortable using him in the ninth inning of a key pennant race game? Absolutely.
But in order for that to happen, Storen is going to need to get some more work in less-demanding situations. He's still working things out, getting a feel for all his pitches, and the best time to accomplish that is when there's no pressure.
Storen will close more games before this season is over. And he might very well re-assume the ninth inning role from his teammate and roommate.
But for now, the Nationals are wise to stick with Clippard, a reliever who's already in midseason form while Storen still deals with kinks he'd normally try to work out in spring training, not in mid-August for a first-place club.