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LaRoche, Morse power Nats to win


LaRoche, Morse power Nats to win

You wouldn't know based on the 0-for-13 he carried with him to the plate Wednesday night for his first at-bat, but Adam LaRoche believes the mere presence of Michael Morse behind him in the Nationals' lineup is going to pay significant dividends over the long haul.

"It's tough to say when you're struggling," LaRoche said. "Obviously the last few games have been a little difficult. But I do know having big guys behind you, I've been in that situation a lot, and it helps. It's nice."

Did the sight of Morse standing in the on-deck circle in the bottom of the first inning cause Mets rookie Jeremy Hefner to hang a first-pitch curveball to LaRoche, a pitch the veteran pounced on and sent flying over the right-field fence for the three-run homer that set the Nationals on their way to a 5-3 victory?

The world may never know. But if LaRoche believes it made a difference, does it really matter if it's true or not?

"With him being back, it totally changes that pitchers' meeting to start a series," he said. "Now you've got one more big bat they've got to spend some time talking about, and figure out a way to get him out. And it helps other guys around him. The fact that I'm hitting in front of him now, I'm probably going to see some better pitches, because they know what's coming up."

LaRoche hadn't exactly been inspiring fear in opposing pitchers over the last three weeks after a brilliant start to the season. Owner of a .336 batting average and 1.024 OPS on May 17, he had seen those number plummet to .267 and .849 during a 6-for-55 skid.

With one mighty swing early in Wednesday's game, though, the 32-year-old might well have put that slump to bed for good. He certainly didn't let up as the evening progressed, singling up the middle in the fifth and then delivering a sacrifice fly in the seventh for his fourth RBI of the game.

Throw in Morse's two hits and first RBI of the season, and the heart of the Nationals' lineup wound up with one of its most productive performances of the year.

"Oh! I mean, it's a whole new ballgame," manager Davey Johnson said, barely able to restrain himself. "Michael Morse is warming up, and there's not going to be much let-up in that middle of the lineup. The first two guys are going to get on, and then the thunder's coming. I've been waiting on it."

The entire Nationals organization had been waiting three months to get Morse back in the lineup. Sidelined since spring training with a torn lat muscle, the man who led last season's roster in nearly every offensive category looked a bit overanxious during his first two games off the disabled list over the weekend.

But after an 0-for-9 delayed start to his 2012, Morse is beginning to discover his groove. He's now got four hits over his last seven at-bats, with a pair of walks thrown in for good measure.

Even more encouraging: All four of Morse's hits have been to the opposite field.

"I liked his patience tonight," Johnson said. "That shows me he's zeroing in."

The thunder from the middle of the Nationals' lineup put the home club ahead early in this game, and the quality pitching of Edwin Jackson, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard ensured a second straight victory over a Mets team that came to town on its own hot streak.

Jackson had dominant stuff, allowing only two singles and a double over seven innings. He did inflict a few wounds on himself via four walks and a costly error on a pickoff attempt. But ultimately he surrendered only two earned runs for his seventh quality start in 10 tries, and he was rewarded for his efforts for a change, earning only his second win despite 3.11 ERA over 11 starts.

The unusual stat line -- not to mention the presence of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann ahead of him in the lineup -- leaves Jackson outside the spotlight at times. His teammates, though, understand what he's meant to the club this season.

"He's like the silent assassin, you could say, of the pitching staff," Morse said. "Edwin always comes out and puts up solid starts. Sometimes it's good to be behind guys like that."

It also helps when your bullpen can close out games in relatively easy fashion as the Nationals did Wednesday. Burnett retired the side in the eighth. Clippard then overcame a leadoff walk to pitch a scoreless ninth and earn his fifth save in as many tries since becoming his team's pseudo-closer.

Actually, Clippard appears to be the Nationals' actual closer for now, used in every save opportunity over the last two weeks and even used on Wednesday against a Mets lineup that had five consecutive left-handed hitters due up in the ninth.

"I've changed enough roles in the bullpen," Johnson said, all but declaring Clippard his ninth-inning guy until Drew Storen returns from elbow surgery around the All-Star break. "From long guys setting up, set-up guys closing, I don't like to keep reverting back and have them guessing out there what their role is going to be."

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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]