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Inexperienced Nats not fazed by postseason


Inexperienced Nats not fazed by postseason

ST. LOUIS -- With a pack of reporters firing off questions and trying to get him to admit he's at least mildly caught up in the moment on the eve of the Nationals' first-ever postseason appearance, Bryce Harper refused to concede the point.

"I think you guys are more nervous than we are," the 19-year-old outfielder said. "It's just another game, just another series. I'm excited, but I'm just going to look at it like another game and another place we play and another team we play. I guess when you step in the box it's going to be a lot different with the crowd and everything, but you can't look at it that way."

Across the Nationals clubhouse Saturday evening, that sentiment prevailed. So what if only four of the 25 players on their roster for the National League Division Series have any postseason experience, totaling 67 games? And so what if 21 of the Cardinals' 25 players have been through this before, combining to appear in a staggering 290 postseason games?

The Nationals insist that won't make much of any difference when the two clubs take the field Sunday afternoon for Game 1 of a highly anticipated series.

"I think this team has done it all year, handle our emotions," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "This whole year has been something that's supposed to be new for us. You know, we were in first place and then we shouldn't have been in first place. And then we were in first place and everybody said, oh, they'll lose it. And then we were in first place and they said, OK, maybe they're for real. And then we were in first place ... so everyone always says that stuff. But for us, we always go out there and play one game at a time. I feel like that's why we've done so well this year."

Indeed, the Nationals managed to post an MLB-best 98-64 record by staying within the moment, never looking too far ahead or behind, never getting too high after wins or too low after losses.

This, though, could be an entirely different animal. The postseason is a meat grinder of an experience, with so much more riding on every at-bat and every pitch than most of these first-time participants understand.

Making the challenge all the more difficult: The Nationals' opponent in this best-of-five series. St. Louis remains defending World Series champions and has excelled in the highest of high-pressure situations.

Five times in the last calendar year, the Cardinals have faced a do-or-die elimination game. And five times, they have emerged victorious, including Friday night in their NL Wild Card triumph over the Braves.

"I think playing in big moments year after year gives you an edge," said right-hander Adam Wainwright, who on Sunday will appear in his 11th career postseason game. "I feel like you'll be be more comfortable in those situations when you're faced with it over and over again. And last year's experience, playing the last month of the season like every day was your last ... it gives you an edge."

The Nationals watched Friday night's game with keen interest, knowing they would be facing whichever team escaped Turner Field with the win. They weren't, however, uniformly rooting for one participant or the other.

"We really didn't care who we played," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "I think I can speak for everybody, it was really 50-50 there. We were watching more as fans than rooting for a specific team because it was a match-up situation. Either way, we were good with it."

The Nationals' pitching staff may have matched up slightly better with the Braves left-handed-heavy lineup, but their lineup may match up slightly better with a Cardinals pitching staff that includes only two lefties: Jaime Garcia (who will start Game 2) and relief specialist Mark Rzepczynski.

Above all else, they'll need their own rotation to hold down a St. Louis that scored 40 runs in seven head-to-head games this season, including 26 during a three-game series here last weekend.

Thus, there will be some pressure on Gio Gonzalez to get his team off on the right foot, hand-picked by Davey Johnson to start Game 1.

"It's really an easy choice," the 69-year-old manager said. "Gio would have hung me if I didn't have him going first."

With Stephen Strasburg relegated to dugout observer following his early-September shutdown, Gonzalez stepped up his game and ascended to the role of staff ace. Over his final six regular-season starts, the lefty went 5-1 with a 1.35 ERA and earned the trust of his teammates and skipper to be handed the ball for their first postseason game.

"It's a childhood dream," the 27-year-old said. "I think it's every kid's childhood dream who wants to play baseball."

As it is for the 20 other members of the Nationals roster who are experiencing the postseason for the first time.

Most, like Harper, have no idea what awaits them. The handful of teammates who have been through this before are trying to make sure they don't get caught up in the hysteria.

"What I've told most of the young guys is: Don't change a thing," LaRoche said. "We're in this position for a reason. We've been one of the best teams in baseball all year. It's obviously worked. Let's continue to do it."

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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.

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