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Heart of Nats' lineup isn't beating


Heart of Nats' lineup isn't beating

It shouldn't be this way. The only sure things right now in the Nationals' lineup are the two rookies hitting at the top of Davey Johnson's order. The veterans who follow and boast actual track records of success at the big-league level? They're the ones making all the outs.

It's an unusual situation, to say the least, and on Sunday it cost the Nationals a very winnable game against the Braves. Despite the continued success of rookies Steve Lombardozzi and Bryce Harper, the rest of the lineup could do nothing against Tommy Hanson or two Atlanta relievers during a 3-2 loss that dropped the Nats into a first-place tie in the NL East with the Marlins.

"Pretty disheartening," Adam LaRoche said, "the fact we started it up 2-0 in the blink of an eye and couldn't get anything else out of it."

Indeed, many among the crowd of 38,046 had yet to settle into their seats when Lombardozzi and Harper made history by launching home runs on consecutive pitches in the bottom of the first, giving the Nationals an early advantage.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, they are the first rookies in the modern era (since 1900) to hit back-to-back homers to begin a major-league game.

Most everyone in the Nationals dugout was busy congratulating Lombardozzi on the first home run of his career -- after briefly giving him the silent treatment -- when Harper stepped to the plate and drilled Hanson's next pitch into the second deck down the right-field line for his fifth career home run.

"They were kind of messing with me when I walked in the dugout," said Lombardozzi, now hitting .309 with a .372 on-base percentage. "And then once they did get up and high-five me, everybody started yelling and then realized he just went yard. It was pretty cool."

With Gio Gonzalez on the mound in search of his team-leading eighth win, those two early bombs might normally have been enough. In five of 10 previous starts this season, the left-hander allowed fewer than two runs.

But Gonzalez looked out of sorts from the moment he took the mound, and he never found his groove. Unable to keep his fastball over the plate, he put at least one man on base in each of the first four innings and then fell apart in the fifth.

Gonzalez was slow to cover first base on a grounder to the right side. He issued two walks. He uncorked two wild pitches. And though he came within one strike of pitching his way out of the jam, he ultimately was burned by Jason Heyward's bases-loaded, soft single to left, which brought in the tying and go-ahead runs.

Thus, Johnson emerged from the dugout with a surprisingly early hook for the just-named NL Pitcher of the Month. Gonzalez had failed to complete the fifth inning only once before this season (in his April 7 debut in Chicago).

"If I would have attacked the strike zone, it would have been a different situation," Gonzalez said. "But apparently I was a little up and a little out of the zone. Good hitters, good eyes. They made me pay for it."

Even so, the Nationals' bullpen kept the deficit at one run the rest of the afternoon and gave the lineup ample opportunities to push across another run or two. Those runs never materialized, though, in large part because of the inability of the Nationals' most-accomplished hitters to produce in key situations.

Johnson's 3-through-6 hitters in this game (Ryan Zimmerman, LaRoche, Michael Morse and Ian Desmond) went a combined 0-for-16 with five strikeouts.

The club isn't all that concerned about LaRoche, who was among the league's most-productive hitters for six weeks until falling into his recent slide, or Morse, who will need some time to find his swing after missing the season's first two months.

The disturbing one among the group is Zimmerman, who has yet to find a level of consistency since returning from a shoulder injury one month ago. In 38 total games now, the 27-year-old third baseman is batting .233 with a paltry .333 slugging percentage.

To put that into context: The slap-hitting Lombardozzi boasts a slugging percentage 67 points higher than the club's 100 million No. 3 hitter, who insists the problem isn't his shoulder.

"I just stink right now," Zimmerman said. "It's frustrating. It's frustrating. Shoulder is fine. Everything is good. ... It's definitely not what I wanted to do to start this season but I can't do anything about it now. Just gotta keep working hard and continue to grind it out."

The stage was set for Zimmerman to snap out of his funk and deliver one of his biggest hits of the year when Lombardozzi and Harper each drew walks to open the bottom of the eighth. But after battling back from an 0-2 count against Braves left-hander Eric O'Flaherty, Zimmerman rapped a groundball to second, a tailor-made, 4-6-3 double play that killed the rally.

LaRoche followed with a flyout to the warning track in left, ending the inning altogether.

And when Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel struck out the side in the ninth, a very winnable game was officially a 3-2 loss for a club that is facing some serious questions about the lack of production it's getting from its most experienced hitters.

"I don't think we need to sweat the middle of that lineup," LaRoche said. "I know it needs to happen now, but I think if we continue to stay patient, there's some pretty good hitters in there that are going to figure it out. But it would be nice to be doing it all at once and see what we could really do."

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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]