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Another impressive Nats rally


Another impressive Nats rally

As the ball struck Adam LaRoche's bat and began its trek straight toward Giants second baseman Ryan Theriot, the Nationals dugout tried to maintain some positive thoughts and believe LaRoche could get down the line and prevent a tailor-made double play that would send this game into extra innings.

"Hopefully Adam's fast enough," teammate Ryan Zimmerman thought before correcting himself. "Actually, I know he's not fast enough. Hopefully they mess it up."

Prayers answered. The Nationals didn't pull off a wild, 6-5 win because of LaRoche's legs. (Even the veteran's 9-year-old son, Drake, later told his dad: "You got lucky.") They pulled it off because San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford's throw to first bounced and Brandon Belt couldn't make the short-hop scoop.

Not that the Nationals were any less thrilled to win this game via the opposition's mistake. The way things are going for them these days, they just assumed they'd win this one eventually, whether in regulation or extra innings.

"Those are the things that have happened to us this year," Zimmerman said. "We got some opportunities, we've caught some breaks, and more importantly, we've taken advantage of those breaks. Good teams do that."

At 48-32, the Nationals are better than good right now. They're the best team in the NL, they just swept the team that owned the league's second-best record when it arrived in town Tuesday and they've earned the respect of the entire sport.

"We've played Texas, and we've played Anaheim. That's two really good teams," Theriot said, citing a pair of American League powers. "In my opinion, these guys are right up there."

If nothing else, the Giants can attest to the Nationals' resiliency during this series. They beat up on Tim Lincecum Tuesday night in a 9-3 victory. They rebounded from an early three-run hole Wednesday morning to win 9-4. And Thursday night they spotted All-Star Matt Cain a 5-1 lead through six innings and still stormed back to win in dramatic fashion.

All the more remarkable: Prior to Wednesday, the Giants were 74-1 over the last two seasons when they led any game by at least three runs. They're now 74-3.

"There's no quit in this ballclub," manager Davey Johnson said. "There's a lot of character on this ballclub."

On Turn Back the Clock Night -- with both clubs wearing replica 1924 uniforms to commemorate that year's World Series between the Senators and Giants -- the Nationals waited until the seventh inning to finally get their gears cranked up. Stifled all evening by Cain, they eventually got to the right-hander when Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa clubbed back-to-back homers, trimming a 5-1 deficit to 5-3.

After Desmond launched his solo shot (his 15th in 80 games this season), Bryce Harper turned to LaRoche in the dugout.

"We're going to win this game," the 19-year-old told his veteran teammate. "Just be ready for it."

"Yeah," LaRoche said, confirming the exchange. "He was feeling pretty good about it."

Harper played a key role in completing this comeback, starting with his two-out, RBI double later in the seventh. That clutch hit came seconds after he was called for a check-swing by third base umpire Jerry Meals on a 2-0 pitch despite barely moving his bat into the strike zone.

"If it was a 1-1 count and he got me 1-2, I would've been kind of fired up," Harper said. "But it was still in my favor, so I wasn't that upset. I got a pitch I could handle a little bit and flicked it off for a base hit."

The crowd of 29,819 -- which in the throwback spirit of the evening was treated to minimal in-game entertainment and music -- roared with approval. Those fans stayed fired up throughout the game's final three innings, culminating with the Nationals' winning rally in the bottom of the ninth.

That rally was ignited by Tyler Moore, another rookie who managed to turn on an 0-2 slider from Giants closer Santiago Casilla and drill a leadoff double to left-center.

"Last year, I'd go up there and just hack 0-2," said Moore, now hitting .328. "I'm just trying to cut down your swing once you get two strikes, take it the other way. It's just something I've been working on."

Steve Lombardozzi, yet another rookie in the Nationals lineup, then dropped a sacrifice bunt attempt that Casilla couldn't handle, leaving runners on the corners with nobody out and Harper at the plate with a chance to deliver in the clutch again.

Harper did just that, sending a 3-1 pitch from Casilla into right field to bring Moore home with the tying run.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy elected to intentionally walk Zimmerman, loading the bases with nobody out for cleanup hitter Michael Morse, but creating a potential force out at any base. That move paid off when Morse rapped a grounder to second, with Theriot firing to the plate to get Lombardozzi for the inning's first out.

Theriot got another chance moments later when he fielded a tailor-made, double-play grounder off the bat of LaRoche, who had only one thought as he made contact.

"Run as fast as I can -- which isn't very fast -- and put a little pressure on them," he said.

Whether it was LaRoche's blazing speed, the pressure of the moment or some other cosmic force, Crawford and Belt couldn't complete the 4-6-3 double play. LaRoche saw the ball hit the dirt, pumped his fist in celebration and then was mobbed by teammates.

Hundreds of miles away in the clubhouse at Turner Field, members of the Atlanta Braves (who had just won their game) were watching on television and reacted with a loud exclamation and a few inappropriate words.

That may be the prevailing sentiment across the National League right now as 15 other teams wonder what, if anything, can be done to derail Washington's juggernaut of a ballclub.

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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]