Three years ago, Drew Storen was the confident, young closer for the Washington Nationals, a first-round draft pick who saved 43 games.
Two years ago, he needed elbow surgery in April, worked his way back into the last-guy-on-the-mound job by the time the playoffs rolled around, then allowed a ninth-inning lead to become a 9-7 loss in Game 5 of the NL division series against St. Louis, ending Washington's exhilarating season in excruciating fashion.
Last year, he lost his closer status to surprise free-agent signing Rafael Soriano, then was briefly demoted to the minors.
And this year? Storen was NL East champion Washington's primary seventh-inning reliever until early September, when he replaced the struggling Soriano as the closer and thrived. This year, then, is Storen's second chance: He and other major leaguers — Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, Adam Jones of the Orioles, among them — are hoping to fare better than in past postseasons.
"I don't look at it as this big, emotional scar or anything. It's baseball, you know? You're going to have bad outings. ... It's a matter of moving on," Storen said, standing in front of his Nationals Park locker, where he sat silently and despondently on that unforgettable night in October 2012.
"I'm a different person," Storen said. "And I'm a different pitcher."
That last part is obvious. He went back to his leg kick. He's quicker to the plate. He added a changeup that tricks lefties. His fastball goes where he wants.
"Just a testament to his fortitude," reliever Craig Stammen said. "Sometimes a little humble pie doesn't hurt any of us. He took his piece, and he worked his tail off to get back."
Storen has converted 10 of 10 save chances since Sept. 7, throwing 9 1-3 innings, with zero runs, six singles, 10 strikeouts, zero walks. At home, where Washington will be for Friday's Game 1 of an NLDS against Pittsburgh or San Francisco, fans sing "Droooooo!" when the 27-year-old righty takes the mound. When he signs autographs, they tell him how happy they are to see him succeeding.
Others eyeing a playoff turnaround include Kershaw, who just won his fourth consecutive ERA title but is 0-3 with a 7.23 ERA in three trips to the NLCS; Jones, 2 for 26 in his one postseason so far, 2012; and Storen's teammate Bryce Harper, 3 for 23 against St. Louis two years ago.
Even two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera hasn't quite lived up to his own lofty standards.
They have company: Several of baseball's greatest players took their lumps on the sport's biggest stages. Ted Williams hit only singles while batting .200 in Boston's 1946 World Series loss to the Cardinals — his lone postseason. Barry Bonds was known for October slumps until his remarkable 2002 for the Giants, which ended with a World Series loss to the Angels.
Postseasons provide small sample sizes against tough competition; hardly seems fair to judge by those performances.
For now, much of how Storen is perceived as a player is defined by that Game 5 ninth inning.
But as general manager Mike Rizzo put it: "He was shaken much less than everybody else."
A day earlier, Washington won Game 4 on Jayson Werth's walk-off homer. In the decider, Washington led 6-0 in the third, then 7-5 with two outs and one on in the ninth. For five pitches, Storen was one strike away from the save. On all five, the batters — Yadier Molina and David Freese — took a ball. Both walked, setting up two-run singles by Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma.
"Devastating," Nationals owner Mark Lerner said. "There were a couple of cheap little hits there. And Drew had, we thought, some strikes that were called balls. But, hey, it's water under the bridge. ... And he's back where he should be. I'm delighted for Drew's success. He's a fine young man."
While the rest of the 2012 postseason carried on without Washington, Storen and Nationals setup man Tyler Clippard took a 10-day vacation in London.
"We didn't talk about baseball. If it came up, the conversation lasted 30 seconds and that was it," Clippard said. "We didn't even know who won the World Series until we got back to the States."
In July 2013, Clippard, whose locker is next to Storen's, publicly came to his buddy's defense and questioned management's moves when Storen was sent to Triple-A Syracuse with a 5.95 ERA.
"I kind of felt his pain and knew the internal struggles," Clippard recalled. "It's been a lot of fun to see him on the other end now."
AP Baseball Writer Ben Walker in New York contributed to this report.
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