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Displaced in D.C., closer Drew Storen starting over with Blue Jays

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- With a wide-eyed expression and shy demeanor, Drew Storen quietly carried his equipment bag from the Washington Nationals' practice fields to the last bus carting players back to the team's facility in Viera. It was 2010, his first big league camp, and he looked as nervous as you might imagine.

But Storen wasn't just any rookie. He was the 10th overall selection in the 2009 draft, a compensation pick from the previous year. Despite his inexperience, the Stanford-bred reliever was already looked upon -- on that first day -- as a promise of what was to come. Storen was among the first pillars of general manager Mike Rizzo's master plan for a young club in desperate need of a turnaround.

Six years, and a lot more facial hair later, Storen is a player in need of a turnaround.

Gone is the enthusiastic, inexperienced kid. In his place, at the Toronto Blue Jays' spring training complex in Dunedin, stood a seasoned pro reporting to a new team.

"It was a tough adjustment," Storen said, arms crossed leaning up against his locker. "You try to make the most out of every opportunity you have, and that's part of what's fun about coming here. It's a fresh start. I've been welcomed with open arms. That was a big thing for me. Everybody's happy that I'm here."

Even with a fresh start, questions about his past are unavoidable, given the amount of adversity Storen has already weathered in his young career.

"The second you really think you have it figured out -- like, 'Hey this is rolling' -- everything gets flipped upside down," Storen said.

An understatement for the reliever the Nationals drafted the same year they took Stephen Strasburg with the first overall pick. On paper and in clubhouse demeanor, they became sort of a two-for-one. Strasburg shied away from the massive media attention he attracted. But Storen, the son of a sports broadcaster, embraced it. At only 22 years old, the rookie arrived to camp already media savvy, tasked daily with handling questions about himself and Washington's reclusive phenom.

It didn't take long for Storen to fast track through the minors. He debuted ahead of Strasburg on May 17, 2010, against the St. Louis Cardinals and impressed his rookie year, pitching 55⅓ innings over 54 games, with a 3.58 ERA and five saves.

In 2011, Storen amassed 43 saves.

But in 2012, Storen didn't get the fairy tale ending the Nationals' fanbase had imagined. In the Game 5 of that year's National League Division Series, Storen blew a save, and the series, with two outs and just one strike more to go.

After groundskeepers wheeled the champagne from the Nationals' clubhouse over to the Cardinals' side, and after he addressed a mob of media with poise that once again belied his age, Storen left for the offseason determined to leave that night's disappointment behind him.

Not everyone was convinced that could happen.

"Until he gets that opportunity again, another big playoff setting to prove himself, it's going to be hard for him to shake what happened," a fellow pitcher said at the time.

He wouldn't get that chance for a while. In January 2013, Rizzo signed Rafael Soriano to a two-year deal and anointed him their closer. Storen admitted it affected his psyche, and he even spent a few weeks in the minors as a result.

"When Soriano came in, I tried not to give up a hit the whole season and barely got anybody out," Storen said. "So that's what I learned, to not overthink what you can't control, and that's the approach I tried to have last year."

Even with an improved outlook, Storen found himself at yet another internal impasse when the Nationals acquired closer Jonathan Papelbon from the Phillies at the trade deadline last year. Prior to the acquisition, Storen had converted 29 of 31 save opportunities and had a 1.73 ERA. He was understandably not pleased about the news and told media he had spoken with his agent. Nevertheless, Storen accepted his setup role dutifully.

"You walk in the clubhouse that day, and it's a little awkward," Storen said. "Nobody knows what to say, but I had already dealt with it. I dealt with a similar situation before, so that was the tough part. For me, it was about making the physical adjustment, and knowing I was going to throw more games. It was more of a disappointment thing because I was looking forward to the first time in my career getting to close Opening Day until the last of the season."

"The second you really think you have it figured out, like, 'hey this is rolling,' everything gets flipped upside down."

Drew Storen

Storen paused, his voice trailing off. "I lost that opportunity, but that's OK."

Adding insult to injury, literally, Storen broke his finger slamming his locker after a less-than-stellar outing in September. He was placed on the disabled list and missed the remainder of a tumultuous season for both him and the Nationals.

"It was the peak of frustration," Storen said. "Honestly, it was an accident. I've done worse and not had that happen. You go from frustration to, 'oh no.' It's a learning lesson, and I'm an emotional person. I'm mad because I care, but you can't put yourself in that situation. It was bad. But that's why the game is so great, but also so tragic, because you can't script things that happen."

In spite of how things turned out, Storen said he doesn't harbor any ill will toward Rizzo for the demotion last season and subsequent trade to Toronto for outfielder Ben Revere.

"It doesn't matter how you really feel about something," Storen said. "If you get caught up in feelings in this game you're going to be way behind. There are other people doing their jobs, too, and sometimes you get the short end of the stick. He [Rizzo] gave me my start. He gave me an opportunity, and when the time came he moved me to a great team."

Storen doesn't know if he'll be the Blue Jays' closer yet, and referred to the bullpen as being "more of a group effort." That's the mentality needed for a depleted Toronto bullpen that resorted to using a position player in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.

Storen's new teammates wasted little time welcoming him. Starting pitcher Marcus Stroman tweeted Storen when the trade was announced, and catcher Russell Martin gave high praise for the man now one locker from his.

"Playing against him, he's a tremendous talent," Martin said, "It's definitely nice for him to get a fresh start. Sometimes when things like that happen it leaves a bitter taste in your mouth."

But there's no trace of bitterness in Storen's demeanor, just anticipation. He still needs to find a place to live in Toronto and said he finally feels at peace about his time with the Nationals.

"Dealing with failures, dealing with all that stuff, really makes you bear down," Storen said. "When you really have to sit down and learn something about yourself, that's when you make strides. If I take care of what I can control, and all those cliches, it'll work out."