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Lannan, Werth overcome their Philly demons


Lannan, Werth overcome their Philly demons

PHILADELPHIA -- For John Lannan, the moment came in the bottom of the third, when faced with a bases-loaded jam he struck out Ryan Howard and got Carlos Ruiz on a comebacker.

For Jayson Werth, the moment came in the top of the ninth, when faced with a riled up Phillies crowd in what had become a one-run game he delivered a two-run dagger of a base hit to silence the angry mob.

And for the Nationals, the moment came a few minutes later, when Drew Storen got John Mayberry Jr. to ground out harmlessly to third base and seal an 8-4 victory that moved this team one step closer to the NL East crown and exorcised some Philadelphia demons in the process.

"A big game, a big outing for John," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "That was a huge win for us."

They're all huge at this stage of the calendar year, each win lowering the magic number -- it's now down to 4 -- and reducing the plausibility of a last-minute flip-flop of teams atop the NL East standings.

Yes, the Braves won again Wednesday night -- their ninth win in their last 11 games -- but they still trail the Nationals by four games with only seven left to play. Each day they fail to close the gap is a wasted day from their standpoint.

The most important thing the Nationals can do right now is win games themselves, something they've done 94 times this season but something they've struggled to do inside Citizens Bank Park. That made this victory all the more significant, especially because of the history of two players who were influential in pulling this one off.

Start with Lannan, whose big-league career began in Philadelphia five years ago with an unexpected ejection for plunking Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in succession and had only gone downhill since then. In seven starts in this ballpark entering Wednesday, the left-hander was 1-5 with a 7.06 ERA.

Lannan, though, has stared down all kinds of adversity during the strangest year of his professional life, so it only felt appropriate to overcome one of his biggest hurdles and beat the Phillies in a game his Nationals desperately needed to win.

With 5 13 innings of two-run ball, Lannan improved to 4-0 in five big-league starts this season, all of them significant wins.

"He's been outstanding for us this year," manager Davey Johnson said. "That's his fourth win up here. Big game against Atlanta, big one here. He's just been a big boost for us."

Though he was mostly sharp during this outing, Lannan did find himself in one big jam when ht loaded the bases with one out in the third. All of a sudden, Howard stepped to the plate with a chance to tie the game up on one swing. Given Lannan's sordid history in this place, few would have been shocked had that nightmare scenario happened.

The lefty, though, took a different mindset with him to the mound.

"I've been in that situation here so many times and come up short, so I told myself not to do what I did back then," he said. "I don't even know what I was doing, I just told myself I wasn't going to let it happen because it's happened so many times here. I kind of was fed up with it and kind of just went from there."

So Lannan calmly struck out Howard on a curveball, then snagged Ruiz's comebacker to snuff out the rally and preserve a 5-1 lead.

The Nationals had staked their starter to that cushion thanks to an early explosion against Phillies right-hander Kyle Kendrick. Three of their first eight batters belted home runs, with Bryce Harper becoming only the second teenager ever to hit 20, Desmond increasing his career-high total to 25 and Kurt Suzuki adding his fifth over his last 22 games.

"The kid got us going again," Desmond said.

Harper may have got them going early, but Werth got them over the hump late with a huge hit just when it looked like the Nationals' lead was tenuous.

After chipping away all night, the Phillies got the deficit down to 5-4 in the eighth and nearly tied the game against slumping reliever Tyler Clippard. Desperate for an insurance run in the top of the ninth, the Nationals wound up getting three, the first two delivered by Werth in dramatic fashion.

Standing in the on-deck circle during that inning, Werth picked up a ball fouled off by Danny Espinosa. The one-time Phillies right fielder turned to toss it to a group of kids seated behind the Nationals dugout but claims he was concerned a group of "unruly middle-aged men that, to me, appeared to be snarling" right behind them.

So Werth tossed the ball into the dugout instead, a move that prompted the entire ballpark to shower boos upon him for the next five minutes, including as he battled through his at-bat against right-hander Justin DeFratus. The boos turned to cheers only for a moment after DeFratus buzzed him with a high-and-tight fastball, then everyone turned silent when Werth laced a 2-2 pitch up the middle for a base hit that scored two runs and gave the Nationals much-needed breathing room.

"I was so excited for him," Harper said. "I wanted to jump up and down and scream. ... These fans going crazy, booing him, telling him he sucks and whatnot. They don't know what they're missing. He's an unbelievable ballplayer, and he's been clutch for us all year. He's what gets us going."

Werth, who forcefully clapped his hands together after rounding first base, wound up scoring moments later when Harper delivered his ninth triple of the season, extending the lead to four runs. He downplayed the booing by a fan base that used to adore him when he manned right field in this ballpark.

"It's really just part of playing in Philadelphia," he said. "That's what makes it great. I had a lot of fun here. I had a lot of good times and wouldn't trade those for the world."

Werth, of course, is enjoying some good times with the Nationals right now. While the Phillies are on the verge of missing the postseason for the first time in six years, he's on the verge of clinching the NL East and embarking on a postseason run with his new club.

Which means plenty more key at-bats for a guy who seems to relish those opportunities.

"I mean, as time goes on here, as we get into October, there's probably going to be even more of that," Werth said. "I've been here before, definitely don't mind 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.

[RELATED: Bullpen, baserunning leads to Nats heartbreak]