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Nats clinch NL East Division title

Nats clinch NL East Division title

Updated at 1:35 a.m.

They stood out there on the field during the top of the ninth inning, trying to keep their focus on whichever Phillies player had stepped into the batter's box. Really, though, everyone with the Washington Nationals -- and everyone in the crowd of 35,387 -- was focused on the upper left-hand corner of the out-of-town scoreboard in right field, where their true fate was being determined.

Two hundred forty-six miles away in Pittsburgh, the Atlanta Braves were down to their final out, unexpectedly trailing the Pirates 2-1 and desperately trying to rally, a man on first and Brian McCann at the plate during an at-bat that seemed to take 79 years to be completed.

"We were out there for the top half, and it flashes up there that there's two outs with a man on first," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "And we played the whole inning with two outs and a man on first!"

Then Drew Storen got Domonic Brown to ground out to second just as Travis Hughes got McCann to tap a comebacker for the final out at PNC Park, and suddenly a wild celebration was underway in Washington, even though the home team was on the verge of a 2-0 loss to its hated rivals.

"We came in the dugout, and all the fans were going nuts," Werth said. "So we started going nuts. I don't know if we even knew."

It certainly didn't take long for them to figure it out. Thanks to the Braves' surprise loss to a franchise that just clinched its 20th consecutive losing season, the Nationals clinched their first-ever NL East title.

"That's the first time in my life I rooted for the Pirates," said Adam LaRoche, who actually manned first base in Pittsburgh from 2007-09.

Shut out by the Phillies? Nobody seemed to mind.

"The way it happened tonight, it doesn't matter," said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the organization's first-ever draft pick in 2005. "We put ourselves in that position, to have the luxury of making the other team have to play perfect baseball. We played a great 159 games to get to that point. We should be commended for that."

Indeed, a Nationals club that hadn't even posted a winning record during its first seven seasons since relocating from Montreal turned itself around in 2012, taking a giant leap forward much faster than most believed possible.

They spent a total of 10 days in April and May in second place in the division, then with a 5-2 win in Philadelphia on May 22 moved back into first place. And never relinquished that spot atop the standings, despite injuries to several key players, a couple of meltdowns by fill-in closers and the highly publicized shutdown of their young ace.

"I don't care how we did it," principal owner Mark Lerner said. "Ninety-six wins, we deserve it."

When the night began, the Nationals weren't counting on a Braves loss. They were dead-set on winning themselves and dog-piling in the center of the diamond.

But it quickly became obvious they faced a stiff challenge from a Phillies club that had nothing left to play for but for at least a few more hours technically remained the five-time defending division champs.

They jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the top of the second, getting a triple to deep left-center from rookie Darin Ruf off starter John Lannan. It was a battle from that point on for Lannan, who kept putting himself into jams but managed to wriggle his way out of them. He got another double-play grounder in the third, then got a huge play from LaRoche on a 3-2 double play with the bases loaded in the fourth, then struck out Chase Utley to end the fifth.

His pitch count at 80 and his spot in the lineup due to come up third in the bottom of the inning, Lannan's night was done. It wasn't his finest outing by any means, but he somehow managed to limit the damage and give his team a chance.

Not that the Nationals lineup had many chances against Kyle Kendrick, the sinker-balling right-hander who had them eating out of his hand for seven innings. At one point, Kendrick retired eight consecutive batters on groundballs. This against a lineup that roughed him up for five runs in two-plus innings last week in Philadelphia.

As each inning passed and each zero was posted on the scoreboard, the tension grew among those on the field and those in the stands.

"It's not nervous tension," Michael Morse insisted. "It's an adrenaline rush."

The real rush, though, came as the score from Pittsburgh kept being updated. When the Pirates went ahead on Starling Marte's fifth-inning, the crowd in Washington let out a roar and began chanting: "Let's go Pirates!"

And when the final score was at long last posted for all to see, all that tension and nervous energy was released in unison. Fans danced in the aisles. Players hugged each other in the dugout. Relievers in the bullpen bounced around in glee, not worried one bit if one of them might need to enter the game should their teammates rally to tie the game.

In the batter's box to begin the bottom of the ninth, Morse couldn't stop smiling, having to step out for a moment to compose himself before lofting what proved to be a meaningless flyball to center.

When it was officially over, after Danny Espinosa grounded out to second to put the finishing touches on a 2-0 loss, the crowd again roared and players who would normally trudge away in defeat stepped back onto the field to acknowledge the crowd.

After a minute or two, they stormed into the clubhouse, where champagne, beer and plastic barriers covering everything of value awaited. They gathered in the center of the room and started spraying everything in sight.

Over in a corner of the room, managing principal owner Ted Lerner -- maybe the only person in the building alive for Washington's last baseball title in 1933 -- watched with a smile on his face, an "NL East Champions" T-shirt over his dress clothes.

Gio Gonzalez marched over and dumped a beer on the 86-year-old's head.

"Looked forward to it," Lerner said.

In another corner, Bryce Harper, 19, and Drake LaRoche, 9, doused each other with apple cider.

Some of his veteran teammates spent an entire career waiting to enjoy a moment like this. Harper got to experience it before he's even the legal drinking age. And he plans to experience this again many times.

"I want 20," he said. "I can tell you that right now. I want 20."

The celebration moved back onto the field, where several thousand fans remained and were greeted by players and team execs.

In the center of it all was general manager Mike Rizzo, who lost 103 games in his first season at the helm, then watched his team improve by at least 10 games each of the next three seasons to finally reach this pinnacle.

So what if the clinching moment he and everyone else had been anticipating came about in unusual fashion? That didn't make the champagne taste any less sweet, nor diminish what his team accomplished over the last six months.

"This division is tough," Rizzo said. "To me it's as tough, if not the toughest, division in baseball. And we won 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]