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Jackson's gem kicks off homestand

Jackson's gem kicks off homestand

As the rest of the sporting world worries about Stephen Strasburg's impending shutdown and the supposedly crushing effect it will have on the Nationals' championship aspirations, other members of the majors' best rotation simply takes the mound and does their part to carry this team to new heights.

The national discussion about the Nationals' rotation has been focused on Strasburg, with perhaps a little bit of love sprinkled in for Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez. All the while, Edwin Jackson has quietly gone about his business, churning out innings and getting stronger and more effective as the regular season reaches its final month.

"People keep talking about Stras. You know, Edwin Jackson is a heck of a pitcher," Jayson Werth said following Thursday night's 8-1 triumph over the Cardinals. "He's a big-game pitcher. He won big games last year, late in the year, in the postseason. Take Stras out and put Edwin in. I like it."

What's not to like? With eight dominant innings Thursday night against the NL's most productive lineup, Jackson continued his late-August surge and carried the Nationals to a rousing victory in the opener of an 11-game homestand.

The man who has occupied the No. 4 slot in the Nationals' rotation all season -- and will be bumped up to No. 3 once Strasburg is shut down in the next week or two -- now sports a 2.79 ERA over his last eight starts and has struck out at least eight batters in five of those outings.

This latest start rivaled any Jackson has made this season. He allowed only four hits, struck out 10 and didn't let a St. Louis player get past second base until his eighth and final inning of work.

"That was a gem," manager Davey Johnson said. "I mean, good-hitting ballclub, and he had electric stuff."

Facing many of his teammates from last year's World Series championship roster, Jackson took advantage of his familiarity with St. Louis' lineup and made some talented hitters look downright foolish flailing away at his diverse repertoire.

"I think it helped, yeah," catcher Jesus Flores said. "He had a lot of confidence in what he was doing out there. We really talked about every hitter before the game, and he executed everything he said."

Jackson downplayed the ex-teammate angle.

"They know me. I know them," he said. "At the end of the day, I always say it's a matter of going out and executing. And when you get run support like I did tonight, it definitely doesn't hurt if you want to go out and execute with a lead."

Run support has been something of a foreign concept to Jackson this season. In his nine losses, the Nationals have scored a total of 14 runs. So imagine the right-hander's delight when his teammates exploded for eight runs off Cardinals pitching Thursday night.

The offensive attack was consistent throughout the evening, but it was ignited by the first two Nationals who stepped to the plate. Jayson Werth led off the bottom of the first by drawing a five-pitch walk, then Bryce Harper turned on a 2-0 meatball from Jaime Garcia and sent it flying into the right-field bullpen for his third homer in 24 hours.

That was merely the beginning of a big night for the Nationals' 1-2 hitters. Combined, Werth and Harper produced four hits (two of them homers), a walk, five RBI and four runs scored.

Add in their performances Wednesday night in Miami, and the Werth-Harper combo is now 8 for their last 19 with four homers, nine RBI and seven runs scored.

"I love hitting behind him," Harper said. "Like I said before, he sets the tone early and he really fires me up and gets me going. Having him hit in front of us really sets the tone for everybody."

Werth's return from a broken wrist at the start of the month has been nothing short of remarkable: In 25 games, he's hitting .337 with a .408 on-base percentage and .478 slugging percentage.

That latter number was boosted Thursday night when the veteran outfielder connected for his first home run since suffering the injury, a towering blast over the left-field bullpen to lead off the fifth inning.

Having been through major wrist injuries earlier in his career, Werth admittedly had some concern about his ability to regain a power stroke once he returned from this DL stint. Early in the rehab process, though, he made the decision to switch to a lighter bat, dropping 1 12 ounces, and the difference has been noticeable.

"Immobilized for that long, you lose a lot of strength," he said. "And I still feel like I haven't gained it all back yet. I went to the lighter bat, but my swing's been good since coming off the rehab and I like where I'm at. You know, it's not always about hitting homers. I think those will come. That's just a matter of being in good position and getting a good pitch."

Whatever Werth is doing right now, it's working. And it's making a significant difference for a Nationals lineup that -- when healthy -- boasts seven players capable of hitting at least 20 homers over a big-league season.

That kind of top-to-bottom production only makes the task easier for a pitching staff that on Thursday shut down the NL's statistically best lineup.

"Obviously they've got the best offense in the league," Johnson said. "But they're going to have to hit against a pretty good pitching staff."

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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]