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Benches clear twice as Nats sweep Cubs


Benches clear twice as Nats sweep Cubs

It had only been 48 days since the Nationals carried a nine-run lead into the sixth inning of a crucial game against the Braves and watched it all crumble away in horrifying fashion. So when they entered the fifth inning Thursday night against the Cubs, leading this time by five runs, they weren't about to ease off the gas pedal.

Thus, Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa each stole second base off Chicago rookie reliever Lendy Castillo. And later, Jayson Werth was given the green light to swing away at a 3-0 pitch with the bases loaded.

It all seemed fairly innocuous, just another example of the Nationals steamrolling the Cubs during what wound up a 9-2 victory and a four-game sweep by a combined score of 31-9. Except for Jamie Quirk, Chicago's normally mild-mannered bench coach, who started jawing at Werth and third base coach Bo Porter and in the process prompted both clubs' benches and bullpens twice to empty and engage in a mild fracas that resulted in the ejections of Quirk and three players.

"I mean, if they get mad at my guys in the fifth inning swinging 3-0 or running, they better get used to it," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said.

Just like that, a four-game series that otherwise would have been notable for the beating the 85-52 Nationals put on the 51-85 Cubs ended with a bang, a war of words, hot tempers and a debate on proper baseball etiquette.

"I think I'd be pretty pissed off if I was getting my teeth kicked in all weekend, too, but you can't lay down," said rookie Bryce Harper, who figured prominently in the incident. "The Braves series, they came back after we were up 9-0. So you can't lay low. You've got to keep going, keep grinding, keep coming."

By the time the fifth inning arrived Thursday night, the Nationals led 7-2, having scored 27 runs over their last 20 offensive innings. They kept the pressure up, with Johnson allowing both Desmond and Espinosa to steal second base and later letting Werth swing away on a 3-0 count.

During an ensuing delay while Chicago catcher Steve Clevenger sought a new mitt, Quirk began yelling at Porter, who wound up approaching the visitors' dugout and nearly entering it to engage with his coaching counterpart as both benches and bullpens emptied.

Porter wouldn't reveal details of what Quirk said -- or what he said back -- but defended his strong response.

"When it comes to our players, I'm very passionate."

Quirk wound up getting ejected, with Porter allowed to remain in the game but told in no uncertain terms he needed to return to the coaching box and not leave it again.

"He got very close to being out of order himself," crew chief Jerry Layne told a pool reporter. "Had he got into the dugout and started a fracas, he would have been ejected. But I thought this was all stemming from what Jamie Quirk did, and he started it. So I got the person that started it."

Order was quickly restored and the game continued without incident until the bottom of the sixth opened with Castillo throwing his first pitch well inside and just missing Harper's right hip. Harper took a step toward the mound and said a few words to Castillo, causing both benches and bullpen to empty again.

"Going up in that situation, I thought something was going to happen, because of what happened before," Harper said. "That's just baseball, I guess."

Said Chicago manager Dale Sveum: "Castillo's a Rule 5 kid that's thrown a lot of those pitches today. There was no intention to hit Bryce Harper."

Order appeared to be restored again, and players were beginning to retreat to their respective dugouts and bullpens when another tussle began near first base. By the time everything was cleared, Clevenger (who aggressively shoved Nationals left fielder Michael Morse), Cubs reliever Manny Corpas and Nationals reliever Michael Gonzalez were all ejected.

"You don't come into our house, and you can't mess with our kid brother," Gonzalez said. "That's how we see it."

Through the entire scene, Harper remained on the fray, veteran teammate Ryan Zimmerman by his side and making sure the 19-year-old didn't get let his emotions get the best of him.

"I wasn't going to do anything stupid," Harper said. "I'm just trying to check off everything on my list. I've gotten thrown at, gotten hit, stole home, we're winning, homers, everything that's going on. Just checking it off the list. That's one of them. Just trying to stay calm in that situation and not do anything stupid."

That was the prevailing sentiment for everyone on the Nationals' side: Don't do anything that might jeopardize your ability to appear in the final 25 games of a pennant race by taking the bait from a team playing out the string of a miserable season.

"We got a lot more to lose," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "I think that's why Nationals coaches were trying to get everybody back and say: 'Listen, if one of us does something, it's going to cost us a lot more than one of their guys at this point in the year.' I think for the most part, guys kept their head on their shoulders. It didn't get too out of control. That's not what we need this time of year."

Thus, Jordan Zimmermann took the mound for the top of the seventh and went back to work, striking out a pair of batters to complete one of his best starts in a month and secure his 10th win of the season. Relievers Tom Gorzelanny and Christian Garcia then finished it off, completing a four-game sweep that leaves the Nationals 33 games over .500 and still holding a 7 12-game lead over the Braves in the NL East.

Over in the visitors' clubhouse, the Cubs were again left dazed and demoralized by what the best team in baseball had done to them over the last four nights.

"It's probably one of the biggest butt-whuppings I've ever gotten in my career, as a coach or player," Sveum said. "I don't remember getting manhandled that bad in any kind of series I've ever been a part of."

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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]