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Instinctive Harper helps Nats win again


Instinctive Harper helps Nats win again

With each passing day, we get more and more of a picture of Bryce Harper as a big leaguer. And what we learn is that the Nationals new left fielder, 19 years old or not, is more than a mere athletic specimen.

Yes, he has the god-given ability to hit or throw a baseball with enough authority to make a stadium full of fans gasp. But he also has the instincts and the awareness to do a lot of subtle things plenty of guys with far more experience have yet to master.

"He's a baseball player," teammate Jayson Werth said, using a seemingly generic term in the most complimentary sense. "When you're a baseball player, you can be 15 or you can be 50. If you know how to play the game, you can play. ... He's a good player, no question about it. He's definitely going to be a force in our lineup for a long time."

He already is. As Harper showed once again Thursday night during the Nationals' 2-1 victory over the Diamondbacks, his quick ascension to the major leagues was made possible not only by his physical tools but by his innate sense for the game.

The kid's latest moment of heroics: An RBI double down the left-field line in the bottom of the sixth, scoring Ian Desmond with the run that put the Nationals ahead for good and rewarded Ross Detwiler for his 6 13 innings of one-run ball.

It was a bit more complicated than that, though. Facing a tough right-hander in Ian Kennedy (a 21-game winner last year) with one out in a tie ballgame and the infield drawn in, Harper avoided the temptation to swing from his heels and drive the ball over the Anacostia River. Instead, he shortened up and took what Kennedy gave him, first sending an outside fastball foul down the third-base line, then dumping another outside fastball into left field for the game-winning hit.

"I was just trying to think middle of the field," Harper said. "He has a good change-up, so I wasn't trying to get too excited and pull off of something. I was just trying to think middle the whole time and got a pitch I could handle and got it going."

It was Harper's fourth double in five games, spanning 16 big-league at-bats. And it came in his first appearance as a No. 3 hitter at this level, a move manager Davey Johnson made prior to the game after easing the rookie in as his No. 7 hitter for several days.

"I don't care if his name is Harper or whatever, or how old he is," Johnson said. "If you're swinging the bat good, we're trying to put out guys who are swinging the bat best in order to do the most damage."

Harper wasn't done with his double. He immediately showed off those instincts by advancing on Jayson Werth's grounder to third base, waiting for Arizona's Ryan Roberts to make the throw before taking off for the bag.

The crowd of 19,636 roared with approval, and players in both dugouts couldn't help but appreciate the teenager's approach to the game.

"He plays really hard," Kennedy said. "That's all you can really ask for out of someone with his status, where he's at, being crowned, I don't know, the savior or whatever signs are out there, or in ESPN The Magazine. It's all you can ask for. He does play really hard."

Harper, of course, wasn't alone in making this victory possible. It required another stellar start from Detwiler, who didn't allow a hit until the fifth and for the fourth time in five outings this season was charged with zero or one earned run.

"Gutty performance against a good-hitting ballclub coming back after a tough loss," Johnson said. "He was my star of the game."

The key to Detwiler's success in this one: His early command. A whopping 23 of his first 27 pitches were strikes, setting the tone for the night.

"Absolutely," the lefty said. "The only way they're going to chase balls later is if you throw strikes early in the game."

Not wanting to put Detwiler in a position to take the loss, Johnson pulled his starter with one out and a runner on second. Ryan Mattheus then proceeded to pitch out of the jam, striking out A.J. Pollack on a heavy, 94-mph sinker. Tyler Clippard retired the side in the eighth. And Henry Rodriguez (getting his first save opportunity since a Saturday night meltdown at Dodger Stadium) set down the Diamondbacks in order in the ninth.

Just like that, the Nationals had themselves another low-scoring, narrow victory. They're now 8-5 in one-run games. Incredibly, they've also won five games in which their lineup has produced five or fewer hits (they only had four in this victory).

"Pitching and defense wins championships. We'll go with that for now," Werth said. "And once we get healthy, maybe we'll go with something else. No matter how you do it, that's the most important thing. We're playing good, crisp, clean baseball, especially early in the season."

And they're getting a lot of help from a 19-year-old who plays the game like he's been a big leaguer for a lot more than five days.

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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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