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Gio bested by Buehrle


Gio bested by Buehrle

MIAMI -- In hindsight, the Nationals were perfectly happy to wind up with Gio Gonzalez in their rotation instead of Mark Buehrle. It was only seven months ago, however, that general manager Mike Rizzo's focus was set squarely on Buehrle, his top offseason target.

It wasn't until after Buehrle spurned the Nationals' three-year offer for a four-year deal with the Marlins and Rizzo's gaze turned to Gonzalez and the six-player trade that brought the left-hander to Washington.

The Nationals aren't complaining at all, not with Gonzalez tied for the league lead in wins and coming off an appearance in the All-Star Game. But on Saturday night, everyone else did get a good glimpse at what made Buehrle so attractive to them in the first place.

With pinpoint command a breakneck pace on the mound, Buehrle carved up the Nationals' lineup for seven innings, leading the Marlins to a 2-1 victory and making a hard-luck loser out of Gonzalez, who was in top form himself but came out on the wrong end of a difficult decision.

"He certainly pitched well enough to win that one," manager Davey Johnson said.

Gonzalez pitched extraordinarily well, scattering four singles and a double over six innings, striking out nine and walking none. Buehrle, though, was better, allowing just one run over seven innings and looking every bit worth the 58 million contract he received in December.

"That's the first time I've ever faced him, but obviously I've seen him a lot," Ryan Zimmerman said of the 33-year-old left-hander, pitching in the NL for the first time this season. "He's been in the league a long time, and he's been really good a long time. He's one of those guys who pounds the zone, he works quick, and he's got a bunch of different pitches that he throws for strikes."

Buehrle (9-8, 3.13 ERA) was so efficient -- he needed only 26 pitches, 20 of them strikes, to complete his first three innings -- the Nationals couldn't afford to try to work the count. He threw first-pitch strikes to 13 of the first 15 batters he faced, leaving just about every hitter in a hole or forcing them to try to put the first pitch in play.

The only run they finally managed to score off him came via small ball and hustle in the top of the fifth, with Ian Desmond beating out a bunt, then stealing second, then racing around to score on Jesus Flores' broken-bat single to left.

The Nationals had a chance to add to the tally later in that inning, with two on and nobody out. But Buehrle fielded Gonzalez's sacrifice bunt attempt and fired to third base to nail the lead runner. That proved costly when Danny Espinosa followed with a flyball to right that would have scored a man from third.

Instead, Zimmerman wound up at the plate with two outs and the bases loaded and wound up striking out on a 2-2 changeup in the dirt.

"I had a chance to get a big hit there, and he made some good pitches against me," said Zimmerman, who had been hitting .364 over his last 16 games. "I wish I could get a hit every time, but unfortunately the pitcher wins sometimes."

Zimmerman wasn't alone in his struggles against Buehrle or the two relievers Miami manager Ozzie Guillen summoned to finish out this game. Bryce Harper went 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts, whiffing on three pitches against lefty Randy Choate in the eighth. Espinosa was 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts.

And Michael Morse went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts for the second consecutive day, once again getting called out twice.

"He's just in between the fastball and the breaking ball," Johnson said. "He's a better hitter than that. He'll come around."

The Marlins didn't have much more success at the plate against Gonzalez. They just managed to execute a couple of times with men in scoring position.

Carlos Lee drove in Jose Reyes with a fourth-inning single, with Reyes dancing off second base trying to distract Gonzalez throughout the at-bat.

"You just got to learn how to minimize damage," Gonzalez said. "Can't let him go out there and cheat on you a little bit and try to get too much of a lead."

One inning later, Emilio Bonifacio beat out a drag bunt, took second on a sacrifice bunt and then scored on John Buck's single to right-center. That's all the Marlins needed to take a 2-1.

"If you've got speed, speed kills," Gonzalez said. "And that's exactly what they were doing. ... All they had to do was put the ball in play."

Thus spoiled what the left-hander hoped would be a happy homecoming. Pitching nine miles from his home in Hialeah, Fla., Gonzalez had more than 600 family members and friends in attendance for his first-ever start in Miami.

Even in loss, the hometown kid couldn't help but smile afterward thinking about the experience.

"It's just one of those things you dream about," he said. "And that's exactly how I felt."

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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]