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What was the turning point for the 2015 Nationals?

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What was the turning point for the 2015 Nationals?

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...

PART I: WHAT WENT WRONG?

WHAT WAS THE TURNING POINT FOR THE NATIONALS IN 2015?

Mark Zuckerman:

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.

Chase Hughes: 

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.

PART I: WHAT WENT WRONG?

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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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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