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Finish line in sight for Nationals


Finish line in sight for Nationals

NEW YORK -- In expanding the postseason to include two wild-card teams from each league, Major League Baseball opened the door for plenty more franchises to keep themselves in the chase through September.

MLB also, however, lowered the bar to reach the postseason. Had the second wild-card been used over the last decade, the National League would have produced playoff teams with as few as 85 wins. And no team with 91 wins or more would have been left out of October. The average number of wins needed to secure a playoff berth (under the new format) in the NL since 2003: 88.

Guess how many games the Nationals have now won in 2012.

Yes, with a 5-3 victory over the Mets on Tuesday night, the Nationals improved to 88-54. Even if they lose their final 20 games, they could conceivably still wind up reaching the postseason. Win just a couple of times down the stretch, and they're a shoo-in.

It's OK to begin the final countdown, folks. Even the manager admits he's doing it.

"It's time to be looking at magic numbers," Davey Johnson said. "And I've been looking at them for a while now."

Since the skipper gives his approval, there appears to be no harm in pointing out the Nationals' magic number to clinch the NL East is now 13. Any combination of 13 Nats wins and Braves losses would secure the division title.

To merely clinch the NL's final wild-card berth, the magic number is down to seven. A champagne celebration could be on tap as soon as Sunday night in Atlanta, more likely later in the week in Washington, when the fast-fading Dodgers come to town.

Make no mistake, the Nationals are well aware of all this.

"Yeah, absolutely," Bryce Harper said. "We all want to clinch as soon as we can and take that pressure off of us."

They moved themselves one step closer with Tuesday night's win at Citi Field, overcoming Jordan Zimmermann's laborious start thanks to a couple of late rallies against R.A. Dickey and the Mets bullpen.

Tyler Moore's pinch-hit, two-run homer off the first knuckleball he saw from Dickey in the top of the seventh proved the difference, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead. The rookie had some minimal experience with knuckleballers in the minor leagues, but "I think they struck me out every time." This time, he wasted no time turning on Dickey's trademark pitch and belting it into the left-field bleachers.

"They're not real fun to face, and he's got probably the best one in the country," Moore said. "I just was fortunate to get one out."

Moore's ninth homer in only 138 at-bats gave the Nationals the lead for good, but the two insurance runs they added in the ninth were no less significant. Kurt Suzuki's RBI single brought home Danny Espinosa to make it 4-2, then after Jayson Werth walked to reach base for the fifth time in the game, Harper laced a single to left, bringing home another run to extend the lead to 5-2.

With the first four-hit night of his young career, Harper extended his recent surge at the plate, raising his season batting average to .265. (It stood at .247 only 18 days ago.)

"I don't think he can swing any harder than he swings, but tonight against a knuckleballer, he used his hands more instead of just trying to crush the ball," Johnson said. "He tried to put the ball in play. He had a good night."

The insurance runs proved crucial, because closer Tyler Clippard served up a solo homer to Scott Hairston in the bottom of the ninth, then allowed another hit to let the tying run step to the plate in the form of Ruben Tejada. Not until Clippard struck out the Mets leadoff hitter could the Nationals exchange high-fives in the middle of the diamond following a somewhat-tense victory.

They retreated to their clubhouse, where the Braves-Brewers game was immediately turned on. A few minutes later, Milwaukee closed out a 5-0 win, dealing Atlanta a blow while raising the Nationals' lead in the NL East to 7 12 games.

All of a sudden, what looked like a critical weekend series at Turner Field may only serve as the Braves' last-ditch hope of making this a race again. Even in their worst-case scenario, the Nationals can't come home next week with anything less than a 3 12-game lead. In a best-case scenario, they could all but lock up the division title.

Worried about conjuring up such thoughts with 20 games still to go? Don't be. The players have been doing it for a while now. They see the finish line in sight at last, and they have no intention of slowing down before they cross it.

"I think it's been that way for 10 days, two weeks," Werth said. "As soon as September rolls around, things are pretty serious. We got a chance to do something here. I came here for a reason, and here we are, Year Two, and we're where we need to be. It's not time to let up now."

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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]