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As always, Strasburg all business


As always, Strasburg all business

Perhaps one of these days -- when he throws a no-hitter or throws the final pitch of a pennant-clinching victory for the Nationals -- Stephen Strasburg will offer up the kind of display of emotion few have ever seen from him.

For now, there's very little that can happen on the field to break through the stone-faced visage of a 23-year-old right-hander who expects the very best from himself and isn't about to publicly celebrate his accomplishments.

Strike out seven of 10 batters over a four-inning stretch? Nothing. Club the first home run of your career and be summoned by an overflow crowd of 41,918 for a curtain call? Just give a quick tip of the cap. Find out your manager revealed you were were dealing with some kind of arm trouble? The exterior expression still doesn't change.

"I just think that's his thing," teammate Danny Espinosa said. "He doesn't show emotion, and that's good. If things are going good or bad, there's no emotion shown, which to me is an even-keeled guy."

There were other important developments during the Nats' 9-3 victory over the Orioles Sunday afternoon in the finale of this series. Bryce Harper overcame an early error to deliver the two-run triple that ignited a sleeping lineup. Jesus Flores mashed only his second big-league homer in three years. Espinosa produced two of his biggest hits in weeks.

At the end of the day, though, the spotlight once again shined brightest on the pitcher who has been under the brightest spotlight since the day the Nationals drafted him three summers ago. For plenty of reasons, some positive, some potentially negative.

Through it all, Strasburg stayed calm and determined. He wasn't fazed by a shaky couple of innings to begin his afternoon, when the Orioles scored three runs (two unearned) and jumped out to an early lead that left many wondering whether Strasburg was about to endure through another outing too similar to his previous laborious appearance five days earlier against the Padres.

He simply retired 10 straight batters, striking out seven to silence the Orioles' potent lineup.

"It was almost like deja vu, especially after what happened the previous game," he said. "I wanted to go out there and do a better job of not letting that affect how I attack hitters. It was nice to be able to go out there and adjust from it and keep the team in the ballgame long enough for us to put some runs on the board."

Unlike that game against San Diego, the Nationals stormed back and got Strasburg off the hook. Though he was just as influential in making that happen as anyone in the lineup.

It was Strasburg's leadoff single in the third that set in motion a three-run rally. And then one inning later, he pulled off his most extraordinary feat yet.

Behind in the count 0-2 to Baltimore left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, Strasburg decided to sit on a curveball. He got one, and the force of his swing sent shockwaves throughout the park.

The ball sailed toward left field, sending Xavier Avery back to the fence. Eventually, the Orioles outfielder ran out of real estate and could only watch as the ball landed in the visitors bullpen, then as Strasburg strolled around the bases on a 26-second victory lap following the first home run of his career.

"Shocking," Strasburg admitted. "That's for sure."

He, of course, was being modest. Those who watch Strasburg hit on a regular basis knew this might happen some day.

"Oh, we watch him all the time; it's a display," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "I think Ryan Zimmerman was joking: He needs to start in the All-Star Game and hit in the Home Run Derby. It's pretty impressive."

Throughout his stroll around the bases, Strasburg never showed any out-of-the-ordinary emotion. He didn't pump his fist. He didn't even appear to smile until he finally returned to the dugout and a few teammates began to rib him.

"I think Strasburg just expects to hit," Espinosa said. "He's a good hitter. He's a good athlete. I don't know, I don't think too much really affects him."

Perhaps not even some arm soreness that may or may not have been significant. Manager Davey Johnson surprisingly volunteered that Strasburg told him following the fifth inning that his right biceps muscle was tight. His pitch count already at 90, Johnson just decided to shut him down for the day.

"His tightness was in his bicep, and he said it was bothering him," the manager said. "Early on, he thought he could get it loose and keep going, but it seemed to get tighter on him. And as soon as I heard that, I said that was it."

Strasburg insisted he had no such issue in his biceps, only the typical kind of fatigue he feels after pitching.

"I wouldn't say it was just my arm," he said. "I think it was just my body."

Strasburg attributed the issue to his having overworked himself in the days since his last start. Perhaps wanting too much to bounce back from a four-inning loss, he did more extensive weight-lifting and throwing in the days since and paid the price for it Sunday when he took the mound.

"Nothing different than any other outing," he reiterated. "It's something that it's going to be like this for probably the rest of the year. It's just part of coming back from Tommy John surgery, building up the innings, getting the stamina and everything. It's something I've just got to be smart about."

Red flags might be waving across town now, but both Johnson and Strasburg insisted he'll make his next start -- currently scheduled for Saturday in Atlanta -- and that there is nothing to be concerned about moving forward. Given Strasburg's history and the manner in which the Nationals have taken extreme precautions with their former No. 1 pick, few would be surprised if the plan changes.

If this is actually something serious, Strasburg certainly wasn't letting on Sunday. He remained his usual self in the postgame clubhouse, chatting with teammates, watching highlights of his performance on MLB Network and eventually showering and dressing for the team's short bus ride to Philadelphia.

For now, he was concerned only with the job he did to help his team snap a three-game losing streak and avoid a sweep at the hands of the Orioles.

That's Strasburg's job, and he's very serious about it.

"To be completely honest, I'm the type of person I want to take ownership," he said. "I want to take charge. I want to be that guy they can rely on to get the job done. At times, I feel like I have to do more to go out there and get the team back on track. And a lot of it's out of my control. I have to go out there and try to do my job. And if everybody does their job, we're going to be OK."

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Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Report: Under Armour taking over MLB jerseys in 2020

Majestic’s reign as the maker of MLB jerseys are about to come to an end. 

In 2020, Fanatics and Under Armour will be teaming to make on-field jerseys and apparel for all MLB teams, according to a Sports Business Journal report. 

The news outlet also reports that the deal means the MLB’s licensing relations with Nike will be over as well. 

Under Armour will produce the jerseys starting in Spring Training of the 2020 season, and “broad apparel rights” will go to Fanatics. 

New Era will continue to be the maker of MLB hats. 

Given that Maryland native Kevin Plank founded Under Armour, and that the business' headquarters are in Baltimore, it’s sure to be a splash with baseball fans in the DMV.

You can read the full Sports Business journal report here. 

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Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Early look at the Nationals' biggest questions this offseason

Here is an early look at the biggest questions facing the Washington Nationals as they embark on another offseason in their quest to build a championship team...

What to do with Wilson Ramos and the catcher position?

The Nationals' biggest question entering this offseason is without a doubt at catcher with All-Star Wilson Ramos on the mend after having the ACL in his right knee repaired on Friday. Not only is the recovery a long one - he could be out until well into the 2017 season - it is the second time he's had the ligament fixed. At 29, his viability as a primary catcher moving forward is a real question. Even Ramos admitted he may have to transition to the American League with his next contract.

If Ramos does leave, behind him will be a significant hole on the Nationals. They have several in-house options, but none that are anywhere close to Ramos, who emerged this season as the best offensive catcher in baseball. Pedro Severino is a nice young player, but has a career .632 OPS in the minors. The drop-off on offense from Ramos to him would be significant. The same can be said about Jose Lobaton.

It won't be easy replacing Ramos with an external option, if that's the way the Nats opt to go. Catchers who can hit and play defense like him are a rarity. Matt Wieters of the Orioles would be the best option in free agency, but he's a year older and is also a step down offensively. Unless they like Wieters - who does happen to be represented by Scott Boras - they may have to trade for a new backstop, and that won't be easy either. 

This is all not to rule out the Nationals re-signing Ramos, but right now it's difficult to project what type of contract he will garner and whether that could fit in their plans. Surely it would be tough for them to offer a long-term deal, but maybe they make sense if he decides to take a short-term contract to reset for free agency either next offseason or the one after that.

Any major upgrades needed?

The Nationals are in an interesting spot, having won 95 games and the NL East, but with yet another disappointing end to their year. General manager Mike Rizzo loves to make big splashes in the offseason. Every single winter he does something aggressive and unexpected. What will he do this year? There aren't many areas where he could potentially upgrade, but that hasn't stopped him in the past.

If Ramos leaves, catcher is obviously the biggest need. But beyond that, the two major problem areas in their lineup this season were at shortstop and first base. Danny Espinosa played solid defense and hit 24 homers, but held an unsightly .209 batting average. His .552 OPS in the second half was worst in baseball among those with at least 165 at-bats. 

Espinosa is always looking over his shoulder this time of the year and just this past winter appeared to be the odd-man out when the Nats traded for Ben Revere and signed Daniel Murphy. Espinosa managed to overcome the odds and play 157 games. He has one year left on his contract, so one way or another the Nats will need to start thinking long-term about his position.

Shortstop is an easier situation to evaluate than first base, where Ryan Zimmerman is due to make $14 million each of the next two seasons and $18 million the year after that. He had the worst season of his career with a .642 OPS through 115 games. Bringing in a first baseman to flat-out replace Zimmerman seems unrealistic, given his contract. But perhaps they can find someone who plays both first base and left field, with Jayson Werth having just one year left on his deal.

Who will be the closer?

The Nationals found success in the ninth inning with Mark Melancon after they acquired him at the trade deadline in a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. But it was just a rental. Now Melancon is due for free agency and the Nats once again have questions at the position. They could opt to re-sign Melancon, or go with another free agent option. Aroldis Chapman, whom they have coveted in the past, will be available. So will Kenley Jansen, who just helped end their season with the Dodgers. It's an unusually deep crop of star closers and it would be a surprise if the Nationals didn't snag one of them. Another option would be to promote Shawn Kelley or Blake Treinen, but that would be out of the Nationals' character.

Are they content with the rotation?

If one were to pick the biggest reason the Nationals lost their NL Division Series against the Dodgers it would have to be the starting rotation. It was their most glaring weakness and it wasn't even close. This is despite the Nats being built on starting pitching and boasting one of the best regular season rotations in baseball. Losing Stephen Strasburg to injury didn't help, but they still had four capable starters left over. Max Scherzer struggled in Game 1, while Tanner Roark, Gio Gonzalez and Joe Ross combined to pitch just 11 1/3 innings in their respective outings. 

If you look at the year as a whole, starting pitching was not a major concern. But the Nats are always aggressive in addressing their needs, whether big or small. They have top prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, but neither distinguished themselves this season. Do they sit tight and hope things improve, or do they try to make another game-changing move? With a weak free agent class, any outside upgrade would have to come through a trade. Also, Gonzalez' $12 million team option is definitely something to watch this winter.

Will extension talks with Harper heat up?

Both the Nationals and Bryce Harper, one could argue, may have incentive to back away from the negotiating table this winter, given the Nats have to be less confident in giving Harper a record-setting contract after his disappointing year, and that Harper may not be wise to sign his new deal when his stock has lowered. But if the Nats and Harper do not come to terms this winter, that sets up a lot more pressure for the following offseason. Harper has two years left on his contract. Heading into next offseason without a deal, with just one year remaining, would create a lot of uncertainty for all sides involved, including the fans who certainly want to see the 2015 MVP remain in Washington for a long time. The storyline would dominate their offseason.

This upcoming winter always seemed like the best time to broker a deal to avoid that scenario, but the timing has not worked out with Harper's production on the field. Also, would anyone be surprised if it turns out Harper was dealing with an injury this season that held him back at the plate? If it were a serious one, he wouldn't have kept playing. But any injury has to be factored in those discussions.

[RELATED: Bullpen, baserunning leads to Nats heartbreak]