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LaRoche, bench deliver for Nationals


LaRoche, bench deliver for Nationals

The NL East title clinched at last, Davey Johnson felt it was more important Tuesday night to rest most of his regulars than field his very best lineup against the Phillies in an attempt to lock up the league's best record on the season's penultimate day.

So it was that Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Kurt Suzuki all watched the game from the dugout, their bodies and minds still recovering from the previous night's raucous celebration at Nationals Park.

There was, however, one key veteran who found his way into his familiar spot in the heart of the Nationals lineup. Adam LaRoche, sitting on 99 RBI, wanted to take a crack at reaching the century mark for only the second time in his career.

"I was going to get one of these next two days a little breather," he said. "We had a bunch of guys sitting today. I told them I'd go in there and try it out. I'm glad they talked me into it."

As are the Nationals, who benefited from LaRoche's leadoff homer in the sixth, the go-ahead blast that sent them on their way to a 4-2 victory over the Phillies and left them on a precipice of baseball's best record heading into Game 162.

At 97-64, the Nationals remain tied with the Reds (who beat the Cardinals, 3-1) entering Wednesday's finales. Because they own the head-to-head tiebreaker against Cincinnati, one more victory would make them the NL's top seed in the postseason and leave them to open the NLDS on Sunday at the winner of Friday's Wild Card game.

Thing is, the clubhouse still isn't sure whether that's the best-case scenario or not, with a Saturday-opening NLDS in San Francisco the other option.

"I don't know," LaRoche said. "We've been talking about that. I think we're 50-50 on it. I don't know necessarily the advantage. We're going to play to win tomorrow, and either way we're not in a bad spot. So I'd say we're fine, whatever happens."

They certainly were fine Tuesday, in spite of their lineup of backups and the parade of relievers who combined to churn out nine innings so Game 1 starter Gio Gonzalez could get the night off.

Tom Gorzelanny, typically a long man, was given the ball to make his first start since July 23, 2011, and responded with 3 23 solid innings. Christian Garcia, Zach Duke, Ryan Mattheus, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen then finished it off, combining to allow one run on five hits over the final 5 13 innings.

"We did a great job today," Gorzelanny said. "Guys came in did a great job. Guys have been pitching a lot lately and still are able to come in there and produce."

The real stars of this game might well have been the bench players who took this rare opportunity to start and made the most of it.

Steve Lombardozzi drove in two runs. Roger Bernadina drove in a run and scored another by tagging up on a shallow fly ball to center field. Sandy Leon reached base three times.

And Mark DeRosa singled, doubled, scored a run and started at shortstop for the first time since 2006, turning a nifty 1-6-3 double play to end the second inning.

"Awesome," the 37-year-old utilityman said. "Little older, little heavier on my legs, no doubt. But it's a position I played my whole life, coming up through the minors. ... So I appreciate Davey giving me that. That was, kind of come full circle, finish it off nice."

The biggest blast of them all came via LaRoche, who led off the sixth by belting a home run into the right-field bullpen. That gave him 33 homers on the season (a new career-high) and gave him 100 RBI (matching his career-high).

"It feels pretty good," he said. "That's something that for anybody in the middle of the lineup, it's kind of a milestone to reach 100. If I had finished on 99, it would have been a tough pill to swallow."

LaRoche's homer earned him a curtain call from the crowd of 33,546. Those same fans were back on their feet as Storen recorded the game's final out, securing the Nationals' 97th win and leaving them one win shy of baseball's best record in 2012.

Whether they actually want that designation remains unclear.

"I prefer not to fly out to San Francisco for just two days, just for travel purposes," DeRosa said. "But in 2010 with the Giants that's exactly what we did and it was fine. It really doesn't matter once those games start. It's who's going to execute and who's going to enjoy the moment instead of letting it get too big for them."

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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]