Are Nationals living in past with Herrera trade?

June 19th, 2018

Not to bring up bad memories, but on Oct. 12, 2012, the Nationals had a two-run lead heading into the ninth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals. This was before the Nats knew their harsh destiny, before they knew that they would make the playoffs four times in six seasons … and lose all four series in variably painful ways.

That was the innocent year, the first winning season in Nationals history, when was a 19-year-old rookie, when had only just returned from his Tommy John recovery season (and would rest for the playoffs), when everything came together all at once and the future seemed limitless.

The Nats led that game at home against the Cardinals, 6-0, and all the good vibes on their side … until it began to go bad. Starter allowed two runs -- one on a wild pitch, another on a bases-loaded walk. allowed a run. allowed a run.

Then it was the ninth inning, and took the mound with Washington still leading by two. Storen was another young superstar on that team -- charismatic, talented, so likable. He allowed a double, but then got two outs. Storen was a strike away from victory against , but walked him instead. He was a strike away from victory against , but walked him, too. In the end, Storen allowed four runs and the Nationals lost.

What does this have to do with anything?

On Monday, the Nationals traded for Royals closer .

It sure seems like this is the latest in a long series of moves by Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who has been trying for six years to build the bullpen that, this time, finally, would win the big game.

The bullpen has been a constant obsession in Washington ever since that sad day in October. A few months after Storen's stumble, the Nationals signed Rafael Soriano to a big two-year contract. After two years of so-so Soriano pitching, the Nats put Storen back in the closer role in 2014. The playoffs ended badly for him again. Storen blew the save in the ninth inning of Game 2 of the National League Division Series (which Washington lost in 18 innings).

The Nationals said they would stick with Storen anyway for 2015.

"We trust Drew," Rizzo said at the time.

But they didn't. Storen was pitching very well when Rizzo made one of the most bizarre deals of his fine career, picking up 34-year-old closer Jonathan Papelbon and his large contract from the Phillies. People in Philadelphia had mostly lost hope that they even could trade Papelbon. The Nats collapsed from there and Storen, perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, has never been the same.

Papelbon faltered the next year, and so Rizzo traded for closer , who was about to become a free agent. Melancon pitched almost perfect baseball in the 2016 playoff series in the NLDS against the Dodgers, but the Nationals lost anyway -- it was their middle relief that fell apart in the decisive Game 5. Then Melancon was gone to San Francisco.

So the Nats tried a whole bunch of different people to close out games in 2017 -- to shocking effect. It got so bad that then-manager Dusty Baker at one point said something like, "Well, I have to pitch somebody." Then in July, Rizzo made a terrific move, picking up the wildly underrated to close games and the generally reliable to set him up.

Washington lost again in the playoffs, but got strong pitching from Doolittle.

All of which brings us to the moment -- the Nationals are 3 1/2 games behind surprising Atlanta in the National League East, and it's generally understood that Washington is underperforming.

Why? Here's a hint: It's not the pitching. The Nats are second in the league in ERA, but even more to the point, they have only lost five games this year when were leading heading into the fifth inning. They've blown one game in the ninth inning all year. Their bullpen isn't perfect, but it's been pretty good, especially with the sort of out-of-nowhere dominance of .

The problem is that Washington can't score any runs.

This is not an easy problem to fix. Yes, the Nationals do have a thrilling 19-year-old Juan Soto crushing the ball, but Harper is in a mega slump. He's not even walking anymore, hitting .146 this month with 22 strikeouts in 13 games. is back on the disabled list, and he was hitting just .217 before. has been beat up. Michael A. Taylor has struggled. None of the catchers are hitting. The Nats are 12th in the league in runs, even with Soto's blazing start and Matt Adams crushing the ball.

Will the offense turn around? There are reasons to think it will, reasons to think Harper will come out of this, will work his way into hitting shape and Rendon will hit his stride and so on. But that might or might not happen.

So I thought it was fascinating that with all this happening the Nationals traded for Herrera, a rental who becomes a free agent at the end of the year. It might just have been one of those deals that fell into place, but you can't help but wonder if Rizzo and the Nats are still thinking about 2012, about all of those late-inning losses, and about getting that final bullpen piece for the postseason run.

It might work out. The Herrera-Doolittle late-inning combo could be pretty awesome in October.

But if the Nationals don't start scoring more runs, there won't be an October for them.