WASHINGTON -- As expected, the Nationals activated reliever Drew Storen from the disabled list before the club's finale on Thursday afternoon against the Mets. What was more unexpected came with the accompanying move, which was to designate reserve outfielder Rick Ankiel for assignment.
Storen will be making his 2012 debut after having surgery in April to remove bone chips from his right elbow. He made six Minor League rehab appearances, the last of which came Tuesday in a scoreless inning for Class A Potomac.
He logged 43 saves in 73 appearances last year for Washington, which was tied for second in franchise history (John Wetteland, 1993) for single-season saves. Storen is already ninth all-time on the franchise list for career saves with 48.
"I feel confident out there and I feel comfortable," Storen said after returning to the club Wednesday. "I think that's kind of the main thing, that's what you try to get in Spring Training. I've been treating these rehab appearances like Spring Training and I'm really happy with where I'm at."
Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said the primary reason behind the move was for the club to carry eight relievers through the weekend, which includes four games in three days against the second-place Braves.
For the time being, the Nationals will have just four bench players and, with starting shortstop Ian Desmond still sidelined on a day-to-day basis with a sore oblique, that really limits the bench to just three on Thursday.
"You've got four games in three days coming up, you've got a bullpen that's performing extremely well," Rizzo said. "The bullpen guys with options are too valuable to send out, and anybody you designate and send out is going to be taken by somebody else. Guys like Mike Gonzalez and Henry Rodriguez, they're too valuable in 2012 -- and Henry, beyond 2012. We couldn't take the chance of him getting claimed by another club. We have a lineup now that's fairly set and we can go with a little shorter bench at this time."
Ankiel, in his second season with Washington, was hitting .228 in limited playing time, providing some power off the bench and a steady outfield glove in the late innings. But with Roger Bernadina supplying more consistent offense and speed on the bases and slugger Chad Tracy set to also return from the disabled list, the team apparently felt it could do without Ankiel.
"It was very difficult because of the guy he is and the professional he is," Rizzo said. "Those kind of decisions at this time of year, when you've got a guy who's been with you all year and helped you and produced for you and really was a big part of your club, are difficult. But again, they're decisions that you make when you're in this position, and some of them are very difficult."
Ironically, though, the 10-year vet was designated on a day when the Nationals were facing off against knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who has been superb this season with a 12-1 record and a 2.66 ERA heading into Thursday's finale.
Ankiel is tied for the team lead in plate appearances against Dickey (24, with 23 official at-bats) and is hitting .391 against him. The next-highest batting average against Dickey among Nationals hitters with more than two plate appearances against Dickey belongs to outfielder Michael Morse, who is hitting .278 in 21 plate appearances.
It's unclear what type of role Storen will hold as he returns to a bullpen that has been fantastic this year, even in his absence. Former setup man Tyler Clippard has excelled in Storen's place since late May, but he has struggled in his past two outings.
Over the Nationals' past two games, Clippard has thrown 43 pitches in two innings, surrendering five hits and five earned runs -- all on three homers. Manager Davey Johnson said after Wednesday's game, when Clippard logged his 15th save of the year, that Clippard would likely be off on Thursday.
"We feel good about where our bullpen's at -- we think we're very, very deep and talented," Rizzo said. "Drew just makes us that much stronger."