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Drew Storen was brilliant down the stretch last season ... until Game 5 of the NLDS.
"There's a bad taste in my mouth," the young closer said after blowing the Nationals' two-run, ninth-inning lead in Game 5 of the NLDS against the Cardinals. "That's gonna stay there for a couple of months. And it's probably never going to leave."
It's now been more than two months since that fateful night at Nationals Park, and there are still nearly two months until Storen and his teammates take the practice fields in Viera, Fla., for the start of spring training, about 3 1/2 months until they head north for Opening Day.
So there's still plenty of time for Storen to re-live his nightmare ninth inning, the three hits and two walks he issued, the just-off-the-plate pitches he delivered, any of which might have wrapped up the series for the Nationals instead of moving them a step closer to one of the worst collapses in postseason history.
Eventually, though, this long offseason will end and Storen will be handed the ball by Davey Johnson and entrusted to protect a ninth-inning lead once again. And what happens next is one of the most fascinating questions facing the Nationals entering 2013.
Can Storen bounce back from such a notable blown save and re-assert himself as one of the best young closers in the game? Or will the burden of that never-to-be-forgotten Friday night on South Capitol Street be too much to overcome?
Once thing should be clear: Storen's Game 5 disaster wasn't the culmination of a long-term meltdown. It was one of his only shaky performances of the season's final month.
It's perhaps gotten lost in the shuffle along the way, but Storen pitched brilliantly for the Nationals down the stretch. In 19 appearances between Sept. 3 (Labor Day) and Oct. 11 (Game 4 of the NLDS), he surrendered one total run. He walked one batter (in Game 4). He retired 48 of the 58 batters he faced.
That was the culmination of a dominant season for Storen. Dominant, at least, once he appeared on the mound for the first time in July after missing 3 1/2 months following elbow surgery.
Storen may not have thrown as many innings as he would have liked in 2012, but his overall numbers were the best of his brief career: a 2.37 ERA, a miniscule 0.989 WHIP, a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, zero home runs allowed.
So what transpired on Oct. 12 was completely out of character for Storen, certainly for his 2012 self.
If there's any question about Storen's odds of success in 2013, it's based entirely on his ability to mentally bounce back after a disastrous conclusion to 2012. He wouldn't be the first reliever in baseball history to blow a save in a big spot and struggle to recapture his form.
Storen does have several things in his favor moving forward. He's still only 25, with a plenty of mileage remaining on his right arm. He's one of the brightest and savviest ballplayers in the game, combining a Stanford education with a broadcaster father that leaves him very comfortable dealing with media scrutiny.
And he's been bred to be a closer, having held that role while in college, then through his brief minor-league career and through a good chunk of his three big-league seasons. In other words, he's always had the proper mindset for a closer, who must possess the ability to forget what happened the last time he was handed the ball.
"It's part of the job," Storen said after Game 5. "It's the best job when you're good at it, and it's the worst job when you fail."
It probably felt like the worst job in the world that Friday night in October when the Nationals' otherwise glorious season came to a screeching halt.
It now remains to be seen whether Storen has the capacity to turn it back into the best job in the world.