The 2015 season was a massive disappointment for the Nationals, who fell short of the playoffs and a World Series title they were expected to compete for. In attempt to make sense of what went wrong for them and how they can prevent it from happening again, we've put together a three-part series on the 2015 season. In our second installment, we look at the turning point for the 2015 Nationals...
WHAT WAS THE TURNING POINT FOR THE NATIONALS IN 2015?
There were any number of moments throughout 2015 when the Nationals squandered an opportunity to do something big that might alter the course of their season. But I'll forever point to two series that defined this year and prevented this club from winning the NL East. One came as July turned to August. The other came during early September. Both came against the Mets, with not a single win recorded by the Nats.
When the Nationals arrived at Citi Field on July 31, they held a 3-game lead in the division. They had been in sole possession of first place every day since June 20 (a day remembered more for Max Scherzer no-hitting the Pirates) but hadn't been able to seize complete control of the NL East.
The Mets had just completed a tumultuous week that included a blown save with two outs in the ninth against the Padres and a botched trade that would have brought Carlos Gomez to New York and sent Wilmer Flores to Milwaukee. They were in complete desperation mode.
The Nationals had just made a bold, somewhat head-scratching trade of their own, bringing in Jonathan Papelbon and bumping Drew Storen to a setup role. But they weren't showing much sense of urgency otherwise, refusing to align the top of their rotation to face the Mets. As the team in front, they felt the pressure was on New York to catch them.
Then, as they prepared to take batting practice at Citi Field, the Nationals learned the Mets had completed a blockbuster acquisition minutes before the 4 p.m. trade deadline: Yoenis Cespedes. All of sudden, New York had the big bat its lineup had sorely lacked all season. All of a sudden, that franchise was reinvigorated. All of a sudden, the Nats wondered if they were in trouble.
They wouldn't have been, had they merely been able to finish off games that were there for the taking. The opener of that series was a low-scoring, nail-biter, a 1-1 game that went into extra innings before Felipe Rivero (pitching his third inning of relief) gave up a walk-off homer to Flores of all people. The next night, the Nats led 2-1 in the seventh, only to blow that lead and lose. Sunday night's nationally televised series finale saw Jordan Zimmermann serve up three home runs in rapid fire, all but ending that game.
Just like that, the Nationals and Mets were tied for the division lead. Just like that, the race was on. Just like that, the Nats felt pressure for the first time.
They didn't handle that pressure well. Over the next six weeks, they stumbled and bumbled their way through some torturous stretches, unable to score runs during a brutal West Coast trip, unable to protect leads with a bullpen that was now imploding. The Mets, meanwhile, went on an insane run (31-11) with a lineup that had morphed from baseball's worst to best seemingly overnight thanks to the Cespedes acquisition.
Yet when the two rivals met again on Labor Day in D.C., the division was still there for the taking. The Mets led by 4 games and were teetering on the brink a bit, having just lost 2-of-3 in Miami and having seen Matt Harvey incite a firestorm by declaring he would be adhering to a strict innings limit in his first season back from Tommy John surgery.
Momentum was turning back in the Nationals' direction, even more so after Wilson Ramos' grand slam gave them a 5-3 lead in the bottom of the fourth in the series opener. But Scherzer couldn't hold that lead, giving up three home runs, and then the Nats' bullpen couldn't keep the game close, giving up three more runs in the seventh during what wound up an 8-5 loss.
As bad as that was, the Nationals still had a chance to take the remaining two games in the series and keep the pressure on. They once again were in fabulous position to do just that when Cespedes misplayed Michael Taylor's bases-loaded single to center into a 4-run Little League grand slam. Up 7-1 in the seventh inning, they merely needed to close this one out ... which they couldn't do. The most disastrous inning of the season saw Nationals relievers (headlined by Storen) give up six runs on only three hits.
The mood in the home clubhouse that night was as down as any non-postseason loss in team history. Players knew that might well have been the end of their season right there. They certainly knew it 24 hours later, when Storen was brought in to face Cespedes in the eighth inning of a 2-2 game and immediately served up a 2-run homer, completing the Mets' series sweep and leaving the division deficit at an insurmountable 7 games.
Two series. Six games. Six losses. Four games lost after a lead was blown in the sixth inning or later. Flip the outcome of those four games, and the Nationals end up 87-75 with the Mets 86-76.
Yep, flip the outcome of four games they led late, and the Nats are 2015 NL East champions.
The trade deadline series against the New York Mets was clearly a defining weekend for the Nationals, who entered the matchup with a division lead and afterwards never led again. That was the weekend where the Mets took control of the NL East and didn't look back. They had just acquired Tyler Clippard and Yoenis Cespedes and were a rejuvenated team better equipped for the pennant race.
I remember being in the visitors clubhouse at Citi Field where the Nationals were waiting to play that Friday game. MLB Network was on all the TVs and they broke the news of Cespedes trade to many members of the Nationals. Several players expressed surprise at the deal, which occurred right up against the 4 p.m. deadline, especially given the relatively low price tag for such a talent. A group of veterans playing cards at a table in the middle of the locker room paused their game to watch the coverage. They all knew it was big.
The Mets series was bad and certainly shifted momentum in the NL East, but I think what happened next was just as pivotal, and it perhaps epitomized the Nationals' inability to take advantage of opportunities when they desperately needed to in 2015.
The Nationals left New York for Washington with a seven-game homestand awaiting them. Their opponents were the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, two teams that by then were clearly not heading to the playoffs. The Nats, on the other hand, were a first-place team for most of the season up until that point and had just gotten Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman back from the disabled list.
The opportunity ahead of them was to reset against some bad teams while at home. That plan was even more important given the stretch that followed the homestand, their longest West Coast trip of the season including trips through Los Angeles to see the Dodgers and San Francisco to face the Giants.
But instead of beating up on Arizona and Colorado, the Nats went 3-4 on that homestand. The week began with Doug Fister giving up five earned runs (including three homers) in the first game against the Diamondbacks and ended with Max Scherzer getting outdueled by Rockies pitcher Yohan Flande in the finale before they hit the road.
That homestand was also the beginning of Drew Storen's downfall. He blew two games against the Rockies during that stretch, the first of which featured a jawdropping grand slam by Carlos Gonzalez.
Storen was never the same after that series and, I would argue, neither were the Nationals. They lost six of their next seven games, including a sweep to the Giants at AT&T Park.
The biggest reason why I think that homestand was the turning point, though, is how the Nationals reacted to it. It was clear to most that they underachieved by going 3-4 during that stretch and it was clear that one of the most difficult parts of their schedule was awaiting them.
But the Nats themselves didn't see it that way. Manager Matt Williams wouldn't assess the homestand as a whole and got testy when pressed on how his team could possibly improve if they never looked back:
"That’s what you would think. But what I would think as the manager of this club is that we must play tomorrow. And if we don’t win tomorrow, or have the plan to win tomorrow, then what the hell are we doing here? That’s what I think. So, for me, it is in the past," he said defensively.
I asked Werth how disappointing the homestand was, especially given the road they had up ahead. He took issue with me calling it "disappointing" and didn't fully answer the question.
Even Zimmerman was more defiant than usual in his postgame availability, saying the Nationals just needed to "stay within striking distance" of the Mets. He was frustrated with several questions about what many of us thought were emerging problems for the Nats.
"You can’t look at baseball on a day-to-day basis. That’s why it’s so hard for you guys. You guys have to write things that really don’t matter because you can’t talk about stuff every day in baseball. I’m glad I don’t have your job," he added.
I walked out of the clubhouse that day and thought for the first time in the season that this team was in trouble. Sticking to a season-long message is one thing, but they seemed yet to realize what many fans and those who cover the team had already been saying, that the time to turn their season around and play to their capabilities was running out.
Yes, they were still in the race because the NL East was the worst division in baseball, but that shouldn't have been enough. It was only a matter of time before somebody figured it out and went on a run. Despite the Nats' optimism on that particular day, it was the Mets who instead became that team.