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Nats spring training question No. 3: Can they catch the Mets?

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Nats spring training question No. 3: Can they catch the Mets?

This week we are counting down the biggest questions for the Nationals as they begin their 2016 spring training in Viera, Florida with their first official workout on Saturday. The third installment examines the lower expectations preceding them...

Bryce Harper hasn't held his first spring training media availability yet and neither has Dusty Baker. There is still time for a 'Where's my ring?' or 'World Series or bust' declaration. But as of now, the expectations for the Nationals entering this season are arguably as low as they have been since this time in 2012.

There are several reasons for that. For one, the Nationals were a massive disappointment last year with an 83-79 record. Then, they followed that up with a relatively quiet offseason, despite their unsuccessful pursuit of several top free agents.

Sure, they added some nice players and improved in some areas, but they also let a lot go via free agency. Their starting rotation, for example, does not appear to be nearly as good on paper with Jordan Zimmermann having left for the Detroit Tigers.

There is also a much different dynamic in the NL East division than there has been in recent years. The New York Mets are back and fresh off a World Series appearance. They retained Yoenis Cespedes and have what most would call the best rotation in baseball, a young starting five that has the chance to be even better this season. They may not be a perfect team, but their model appears sustainable with a trio of elite starting pitchers.

Because of those reasons, most outlets around the country are picking the Mets to repeat as division champions. That's a marked change from the last three years when the Nats were on the short-list of World Series favorites.

Again, a lot can change between now and Opening Day. The Nationals could pull off a game-changing trade for Jonathan Lucroy or acquire a clear upgrade at starting pitcher. But as of now, they will enter the 2016 season expected by most to finish in second place and be more likely to compete for the NL Wild Card.

Could that be a good thing for the Nationals, to not have everyone predict them to win it all? Lower expectations are easier to exceed, and it's not like the Nationals aren't talented enough to challenge the Mets. They could conceivably enter this season in New York's shadow and end up proving the prognosticators wrong by supplanting them. As the Nats have shown several times before, preseason predictions are often wrong.

It will be interesting to watch this spring how the Nationals manage the expectations currently bestowed on them. Do they continue to keep a lower profile, or will a flashy soundbite end up defining them like it has in years past? 

Harper was asked on the night he won the MVP award in November about the Mets and the NL East and he seemed to enjoy the fact the Nats are being overlooked.

"I hope everybody in the book dismisses us, because that means we’re going to go out there and do everything we can to prove people wrong," he said.

We'll see if he and his teammates still feel the same.

Nats spring training question No. 5: Who plays shortstop?

Nats spring training question No. 4: Enough starting pitching?

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Former Nats manager Jim Riggleman named interim manager of Reds

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Former Nats manager Jim Riggleman named interim manager of Reds

Remember Jim Riggleman, the infamous Nats manager that resigned from the position back in 2011 after a win against the Seattle Mariners? Well he's back in a managerial position.

Bryan Price was fired as manager of the Cinncinati Reds Thursday, after the team started the 2018 season 3-15. Riggleman, who spent four seasons as their bench coach, was named the interim manager to replace Price.

Riggleman was promoted to interim manager of the Nats in July of 2009, after Manny Acta was let go midseason. He stayed on as manager for 2010 and 2011, and he then resigned from the team on June 23, 2011 after a win agaisnt the Seattle Mariners. He had lead the team to a win in 11 of their last 12 games prior to stepping away.

The reason behind the dramatic exit was due to the organization not yet picking up his 2012 contract option. He had reportedly requested a conversation with the front office about his future with the organization, and was upset after they declined. At 58 years-old, he felt he deserved more respect.

He's been with the Reds organization since 2012, and has spent time managing the Padres, Cubs and Mariners, in addition to the Nationals. His career winning pct. with each team has been below-.500.

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Nationals fall after Mets score 9 runs in 8th inning

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Nationals fall after Mets score 9 runs in 8th inning

NEW YORK -- Yoenis Cespedes launched a grand slam during a nine-run outburst in the eighth inning that rallied the New York Mets past the Washington Nationals 11-5 on Wednesday night, preventing a three-game sweep.

Todd Frazier tied it at 4 with a two-run single and pinch-hitter Juan Lagares put New York ahead for the first time with a two-run double off ineffective setup man Ryan Madson (0-2).

Shut down by Tanner Roark for seven innings, the first-place Mets broke loose in the eighth and improved to 13-4 with a stirring victory against their NL East rivals.

Ryan Zimmerman homered twice, tripled and drove in four runs for the Nationals, who pulled off their own big comeback in the eighth inning of the series opener.

Two nights later, New York returned the favor.

Roark limited the Mets to two hits and left leading 4-2. Michael Conforto, Cespedes and Asdrubal Cabrera singled off Madson to load the bases with nobody out in the eighth. Jay Bruce fouled out before Frazier smacked a two-run single up the middle and advanced to second on the throw home.

After an intentional walk to Adrian Gonzalez loaded the bases again, pinch-hitter Wilmer Flores struck out. Lagares then lined a two-run double the other way, just inside the right-field line at the outer edge of the infield grass, to put the Mets up 6-4.

Sammy Solis walked Amed Rosario and Conforto to force in a run. Cespedes connected for his sixth career slam -- the third by the Mets already this season -- off A.J. Cole, sending fans into a frenzy.

Both of Cespedes' hits in the inning came on 0-2 pitches.

AJ Ramos (1-1) worked a perfect inning for his first win with the Mets since being acquired from Miami last July.

Howie Kendrick reached on an infield single for Washington in the first and Bryce Harper drew his 24th walk, most in the majors. Zimmerman, batting .121 at that point and struggling to make opponents pay for bypassing Harper, came through with a drive to left-center off Steven Matz for his second home run of the season.

Matz steadied himself after a 33-pitch first inning and retired his final 10 batters. He was pulled for a pinch hitter in the fourth after throwing 74 pitches.

Cabrera doubled to open the fourth and scored on Gonzalez's single. Zimmerman had a chance to start an inning-ending double play, but his throwing error from first base allowed another run to score on Jose Lobaton's RBI grounder as the Mets cut it to 3-2.

After Mets pitchers retired 16 in a row, Zimmerman's leadoff triple in the seventh got past a diving Bruce in right field, and Moises Sierra followed with a sacrifice fly to make it 4-2.

Zimmerman also hit a solo homer in the ninth.