Ben Raby, wtop.com
WOODBRIDGE, Va. - The game-time temperature was 97 degrees at Pfitzner Stadium, but starting pitcher Drew Storen could not have been more comfortable.
The Washington Nationals closer made his first of four scheduled rehab appearances Thursday night for Single-A Potomac as he nears a return to the Nats bullpen. Storen said afterward that he was pain-free.
"It felt great," he said. "The mechanics felt really good … I just wanted to be down in the zone and sink my sinker and I thought I did a good job doing that. So I was happy with how everything went and I felt that I was commanding the strike zone well."
Storen pitched in a live game Thursday for the first time since spring training and threw a scoreless first inning without allowing a baserunner. He needed just eight pitches to retire the only three Frederick Keys he faced.
The 24-year-old has missed the entire season after undergoing surgery to remove a bone chip in his right elbow in April.
"I was out there pitching and I was worried about where to throw it and what pitch to throw in each count and not worrying about, 'Is this going to hurt or not?' Storen said. "Honestly, before I had surgery and in spring training that was my main concern, and now that I don't have that in my head I'm really happy with it."
Storen threw six of his eight pitches for strikes while registering a popout, a flyout and a groundout. Originally slated to throw as many as 25 pitches, Storen joked afterward that he was just too efficient.
"It's about getting your feet wet more than anything," he said. "Pitch count isn't necessarily important right now for me -- it's just about facing hitters. It's a whole other ballgame when you're facing hitters in a game and you've got umpires and everyone here."
Storen threw five fastballs, all of which were in the 91-92 mph range, and his velocity is one area that he'll look to improve in his upcoming appearances. Manager Davey Johnson said this week that Storen likely would pitch every other day before returning to the Nats' active roster next Friday.
"My velocity isn't where it's going to be when I'm pitching in the ninth inning of a big league game, but it's still there," Storen said. "You have stepping stones [in rehab] and each outing it will ideally go up.
"That comes with arm strength and at this point where I gain arm strength is by throwing in a game. If I can have another outing like this the next time I'm out, I'll be a very happy camper."
Storen finished fourth in the National League with 43 saves last season while going 6-3 with a 2.75 ERA. His start Thursday was his first since high school, and he acknowledged afterward that "it was a little different." He said he almost forgot to stand on the mound for the national anthem.
When Storen returns to the Nats' active roster following next week's All Star break, he'll return to the bullpen, but not to his usual role as the team's full- time closer.
The closer role now belongs to Tyler Clippard, who entered play Thursday 13-for-13 in save opportunities while allowing just two hits and no runs in 16.1 innings during his last 17 appearances.
Johnson has said that Storen most likely will be eased in as a setup man. "I'm preparing to close regardless," Storen said. "I know coming in that the plan is to have me set up when I first get back and that needs to happen. That's part of the acclimation process and it's just a matter of getting your feet wet at each different level.
"I know what I have to do."
Storen is expected to pitch again for Potomac on Saturday.
NOTES: Chad Tracy was also in the Potomac lineup Thursday as he rehabs from surgery to repair a torn right adductor muscle. Tracy went 0-for-2 with two well- hit balls to the outfield. The Nats' infielder was robbed of extra bases in his first at-bat when Frederick right fielder Steven Bumbry made a leaping catch at the right-field fence. Tracy last played with the Nats May 26.
(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)
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