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Nationals hold off Cardinals


Nationals hold off Cardinals

By Mark Zuckerman
Nationals Insider

ST. LOUIS -- The champagne was on site, stored away in crates out of view from the main room in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium. So, too, were the plastic locker covers, the ones that can quickly be installed to prevent all that champagne from ruining clothes, jewelry and electronics.

The Nationals showed up Saturday afternoon prepared for a party, just in case events fell their way. But before their 6-4, 10-inning victory over the Cardinals was complete, they already knew there would be no celebration on this night. The Braves' 2-0 win over the Mets kept the NL East race alive for at least one more day.

The Nationals, though, know they don't need to count on Atlanta for anything any more. Thanks to this victory, they lowered their magic number to 1. If they simply win one of their final four games, they'll win the division and enter the postseason no worse than the NL's No. 2 seed.

The clinch could now come Sunday afternoon, with the Nationals closing out this series against the Cardinals about 30 minutes after the Braves and Mets get underway at Turner Field.

A clinch Saturday night -- on the eighth anniversary of the day Major League Baseball announced baseball was returning to Washington after a 33-year hiatus -- certainly would have been sweet. But a clinch Sunday afternoon -- on the 41st anniversary of the Senators' final game at RFK Stadium -- would be just as meaningful for the Nationals and for generations of D.C. baseball fans.

The Nationals reached this precipice of history after a nip-and-tuck, extra-inning affair against the Wild Card-contending Cardinals, one that saw Michael Morse kick things off with one of the strangest grand slams in decades, then saw Jordan Zimmermann and four relievers try to hang on for dear life to prevent St. Louis from completing a late rally that would have spoiled the night for everyone.

The first three men out of the bullpen (Sean Burnett, Ryan Mattheus and Tyler Clippard) managed to get the job done. The fourth man out of the pen, Drew Storen, was not as fortunate.

The Nationals' once-and-future closer blew a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth, allowing back-to-back, groundball singles to Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso before Jon Jay lofted a sacrifice fly to center, plenty deep to bring Kozma home with the tying run and send this one to extra innings.

No worries, because Kurt Suzuki picked everyone up with a clutch, two-out, two-run double in the top of the 10th, moments after St. Louis manager Mike Matheny decided to intentionally walk the struggling Danny Espinosa and pitch to the recently-hot catcher instead.

Suzuki, now hitting .322 with 20 RBI over his last 27 games, scorched right-hander Fernando Salas' pitch to the wall in left-center, bringing home both Adam LaRoche and Espinosa and letting everyone in the Nationals dugout breath a bit again.

Craig Stammen then finished it off, earning a rare save to cap off a tense evening of baseball.

They treated this like any other day inside the Nationals clubhouse before the game, players lounging around playing cards or watching the Ryder Cup on television. Little would anyone realize the champagne and plastic locker covers were lurking in an adjacent room, ready to be moved into position should events make it necessary.

For that to happen, of course, the Nationals not only needed to win but the Braves needed to lose for the second straight night. They'd been sneaking peeks at the out-of-town-scoreboard for several weeks, but they really were keeping a close eye on the giant, LED display above the right field fence at Busch Stadium.

"This one here is plastered all over in front of you," manager Davey Johnson said. "So you can't hardly miss it."

Thus, the Nationals had to notice very quickly when the Braves jumped out to a 1-0 lead on the Mets in the bottom of the first. And they had to notice when the lead doubled to 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth, then remained just like that deep into the ballgame, a somewhat demoralizing development for a club that was hoping to celebrate on this night.

Not that the Nationals weren't holding up their part of the bargain, storming out of the gates to take a 4-0 lead in the top of the first in as bizarre a scene as you'll ever see on a big-league field.

After Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and LaRoche all reached safely with one out, Morse stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and Kyle Lohse on the ropes. He pounced on Lohse's first pitch and drilled the ball on a line to right field, where it caromed off something and bounced back onto the field.

The Nationals all assumed it was a home run, but Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran fired the ball back into the infield, so now nobody was entirely sure what happened. Harper crossed the plate, but Zimmerman stopped at third and LaRoche stopped after rounding second. That left Morse scampering back to first base, where he wound up getting thrown out.

The umpires immediately huddled up and agreed to go take a look at the tape, then after a brief delay they confirmed what everyone watching on TV saw: the ball struck an advertisement beyond the fence, clearly a home run.

So Morse was awarded the grand slam, and the Nationals were suddenly up 4-0 ... except for one small problem: All four of their baserunners needed to reposition themselves and jog around the bases to make it official. Thus everyone was treated to the surreal sight of Morse standing in the batters' box, no bat in hand, pantomiming a swing and then trotting 360 feet to complete his Immaculate Grand Slam.

If that wasn't a positive omen for the Nationals on a potentially historic night, what else could be?

How about a dominant pitching performance from Zimmermann, whose up-and-down second half of the season ended on an uplifting note. For six innings, the right-hander was in complete control, scattering four singles and a walk, not allowing any of those runners to cross the plate.

Zimmermann, though, finally faltered in the seventh, letting four straight Cardinals reach in rapid succession, faster than Johnson to get right-hander Mattheus warmed up in the bullpen. So Johnson waited until the left-handed Jon Jay was at the plate before signaling for Burnett, who promptly allowed a seeing-eye single that trimmed the lead to 4-3 but rebounded by getting Matt Carpenter to fly out to center.

Mattheus finally entered after that, facing slugger Matt Holliday in a huge spot, with the tying run on second and two outs. Mattheus, who has been one of the Nationals' better relievers at escaping jams this season, delivered again. He got Holliday to fly out harmlessly to right, preserving that slimmest of leads.

As this was all playing out, though, Craig Kimbrel was putting the finishing touches on the Braves' victory. Just like that, no matter what happened on the field at Busch Stadium, there would be no celebration in the clubhouse.

The champagne stayed in those cases. The plastic locker covers stayed hidden from view. And the Nationals could do nothing but head back their hotel for the night, knowing the celebration Washington baseball fans have waited 79 years to experience can't take place for at least one more day.

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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]