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Making sense of a rare sweep for the first-place Nats

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Making sense of a rare sweep for the first-place Nats

After winning nine consecutive series to tie a franchise record, the Nationals took a step back over the weekend by getting swept by the Reds. The Nationals arrived in Cincinnati as one of the hottest teams in baseball, while the Reds had lost 10 of their previous 11 games. So, what happened?

Well, it's tough to make too much of three games in a long season, but the weekend may have highlighted some things that could be concerning in the short-term.

For one, the Nationals are dealing with a significant amount of injuries. The disabled list is now a crowded group with Stephen Strasburg joining Doug Fister, Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon. Bryce Harper also missed Saturday's game with a sore back. Take all those names out of the mix and the Nats look like a much different team.

Denard Span was also removed from Sunday's game in the eighth inning with a sore right knee, as Matt Williams revealed to reporters afterwards. It sounds minor, but it's something to watch.

With all the injuries they've had this season, it's a wonder how the Nationals have been so good at scoring runs. Even after scoring nine runs in three games this weekend, the Nats remain atop the NL in run production. The Reds, meanwhile, are 26th in baseball with a 4.24 team ERA. And that's after putting on a solid pitching display against the Nats.

Given the Nationals' otherwise very impressive track record, offense shouldn't be too much of a worry. And Rendon seems like he's close to returning, which will be a huge boost.

The weekend sweep also showed some cracks in the Nats' bullpen, however. It was a series to forget for the Nats' pitching staff as a whole, but the bullpen in particular gave up 14 runs in 11 2/3 innings.

Casey Janssen, Aaron Barrett and Matt Grace got the worst of it against the Reds. Janssen gave up four earned runs on four hits and two walks in the eighth inning on Saturday. Barrett gave up two runs in 1/3 of an inning pitched on Sunday. And Grace allowed four runs on three hits and two walks without retiring a batter in the seventh inning on Sunday.

Janssen is just getting started this season, but Barrett now sports a 5.19 ERA through 25 games this year and Grace has a 5.25 ERA through 17 appearances. All three figure to play big roles on the Nats' pitching staff this year and will certainly hope to be better moving forward.

The Nationals should be fine in the long-run and are returning home at a convenient time. They begin a series with the 23-29 Toronto Blue Jays at Nats Park on Monday.

The Blue Jays are also a team with a poor pitching staff, much like the Reds, and sit 28th in baseball with a 4.59 ERA. Seeing them for three straight games could help get the offense back going.

The Blue Jays are, though, the best scoring team in baseball. They average 5.15 runs per game hold a .768 team OPS. Only three Nats players - Harper, Span and Danny Espinosa - have been better this season individually. That could provide a big test for a banged up rotation and a struggling relief staff.

Fortunately for the Nationals, the Mets failed to take advantage this weekend. New York lost two of three to the 20-31 Miami Marlins while the Nats were in Cincy. Up next for the Mets is a West Coast road trip through San Diego and Arizona.

The Nationals remain in first place and still look like the best team in the NL East by a good margin, despite the sweep. The Reds series may have pointed out a few concerns, but it's likely just a minor wakeup call for a team that was cruising for the previous five weeks.

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It's Day 1 of spring training and Bryce Harper is already done taking questions regarding his future

It's Day 1 of spring training and Bryce Harper is already done taking questions regarding his future

So if you have not heard, Bryce Harper is going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2018 season.

All off-season talking heads, baseball aficionados, radio hosts, etc. were speculating on where the outfielder’s destination will be next year.

And we are still a year away from it actually happening.

RELATED: VEGAS SETS OVER/UNDERS FOR 2018 MLB SEASON

Reporting to spring training on Monday, Harper did not waste any time telling the media how his press conferences were going to play out this season.

“If guys do [ask], or talk anything about that, I will be walking right out the door.”

Entering his seventh season with the Washington Nationals, the 25-year-old is coming off the second-best season, statistically, of his career. The 2015 NL MVP has hit .285 in his career, with 150 home runs and 421 RBIs. Unquestionably he is the face of the Nationals’ organization, if not, the best player in the team’s history.

If he does end the season without a contract extension, he will join Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and Barry Bonds as the top sought out free agents in MLB history.

One thing is for certain in terms of Harper’s free agency; Harper has given no inclination on where his landing spot will be.  The top three cities are of course his favorite childhood team, the New York Yankees; joining with one of his closest friends with the Chicago Cubs; or just staying with Washington.

Wherever he does land, it does appear that it will be the largest contract given to a free agent ever.

As for now we just wait and direct any of your calls to his agent Scott Boras.

READ ALSO: NATIONALS FULL SPRING TRAINING SCHEDULE

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Nationals Spring Training Schedule 2018

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USA Today Sports Images

Nationals Spring Training Schedule 2018

Now that pitchers and catchers have reported, the next step in our long journey to Opening Day is the spring training games themselves. Not every game is televised, so get ready to follow along with your favorite beat writer's Twitter account for all your updates.

Even without getting to watch the games, it'll still be exciting to once again check box scores in the morning to see if Bryce Harper homered again, or if Max Scherzer is perfect through 4 innings (spoiler: both of these will happen).

This year's spring training will be especially interesting, considering how many big-name players will be signing contracts in the next few weeks. The Nats are always willing to make a big splash, and even beyond the available free agents, have been linked to impact players like J.T. Realmuto in trade rumors.

Typically, the excitement of adding a new piece to the roster has to be reignited after a long winter off, but this season, those additions will be happening while camp is already underway.

It's going to be a hectic few weeks as teams prepare for their seasons, so bookmark this page to check on the Nationals spring training schedule over the next few weeks as the team finally takes the field in 2018.

Nationals 2018 Spring Training Schedule

Friday, Feb. 23 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Saturday, Feb. 24 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Feb. 25 - Braves at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Monday, Feb. 26 - Nationals at Braves, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Feb. 27 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Wednesday, Feb. 28 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Thursday, Mar. 1 (SS) - Nationals at Braves, 1:05 pm
Friday, Mar. 2 (SS) - Nationals at Mets, 1:10 pm
Saturday, Mar. 3 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 4 (SS) - Tigers at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 4 (SS) - Nationals at Mets, 1:10 pm
Monday, Mar. 5 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Mar. 6 (SS) - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Wednesday, Mar. 7 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Thursday, Mar. 8 - Mets at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Saturday, Mar. 10 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 11 - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Monday, Mar. 12 - Nationals at Tigers, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Tuesday, Mar. 13 (SS) - Mets at Nationals, 7:05 pm (MLBN) (MASN)
Thursday, Mar. 15 - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Friday, Mar. 16 (SS) - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Saturday, Mar. 17 - Mets at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 18 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Monday, Mar. 19 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Mar. 20 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Wednesday, Mar. 21 - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm (ESPN2) (MASN)
Thursday, Mar. 22 - Nationals at Mets, 6:10 pm
Friday, Mar. 23 (SS) - Astros at Nationals, 6:05 pm (MASN)
Friday, Mar. 23 - Nationals at Marlins, 7:05 pm
Saturday, Mar. 24 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 25 - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Tuesday, Mar. 27 (at Nationals Park) - Twins at Nationals, 4:05 pm