There were Bryce Harper’s homers, all three of them. And there were Max Scherzer’s seven innings of dominance. But the Nationals’ 7-5 victory over the Marlins on Wednesday afternoon still required one final, electric performance from Drew Storen to be secured.
And it was electric, even though the Nats closer got himself in a quick jam after plunking Donovan Solano and allowing a single to Dee Gordon to lead off the ninth.
The key at-bat, of course, came against perhaps the most-feared hitter in baseball (or, at least, the most-feared hitter in Washington): Giancarlo Stanton. Having already crushed a 3-run homer the previous inning to end Scherzer’s day and make this a close game again, Stanton was lurking throughout the ninth, due up fourth when the inning began.
Everybody in the ballpark knew it, knew Storen’s best chance for success was to retire the Marlins’ first three batters and never let Stanton reach the plate. But Storen knew he had to fight the temptation to think in those terms.
“I look at it like golf,” he said. “If you tell yourself, ‘Don’t hit it in the water,’ you end up hitting it in the water. You have to take it a batter at a time. Obviously, that’s not how you draw it up. But you have to work with the situation you’re in.”
Before facing Stanton, Storen got Martin Prado to fly out to right field. So that was out No. 1, bringing the big slugger to the plate with two on and a chance to give his team the lead with one swing.
Storen knew his gameplan entering the encounter. Stanton is most vulnerable to breaking balls down and away. But that doesn’t mean you can abandon the other side of the plate altogether.
“He’s so strong and powerful,” Storen said. “He got me last year in a similar situation on a slider down and away. So I’ve got to show him [something inside], so he’s going to have to respect the inner half. … You’ve just got to keep him off-balance, man.”
Which is exactly what Storen did. His first pitch was a fastball way inside, forcing Stanton to take a step back. That then set up a slider down and away, which Stanton missed for strike one. Then came another fastball in, this one a sinker that Stanton barely foul-tipped for strike two and put the slugger on the defensive.
And that then set the stage for Storen’s final pitch of the at-bat, another slider away, which Stanton couldn’t reach. A subsequent strikeout of Marcell Ozuna finished the deal and sealed the Nationals’ third consecutive series victory.
“The key in that at-bat was the sinker in that he fouled off,” manager Matt Williams said. “Which opens up the outer side of the plate for any pitcher, but especially for Drew’s slider. He was a little erratic coming out of the bullpen. But once he hit Solano, then he settled into the strike zone better and made some good pitches.”