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Nats' last man delivers


Nats' last man delivers

As the Nationals' designated backup catcher for the night, Wilson Ramos knew he could lounge around in the dugout, pop sunflower seeds into his mouth and goof around with teammates. But as this game progressed, as the Nationals and Phillies kept trading blows with neither side able to deliver the knockout punch, Ramos began to realize his services might actually be needed at some point.

Sure enough, as the bottom of the 11th arrived, manager Davey Johnson got Ramos' attention at the other end of the dugout and held up five fingers. Translation: If reach the No. 5 spot in our lineup in this inning, you're hitting for the pitcher.

And just like that, Ramos transformed from his lazy-night-off mindset to emergency pinch-hitter mode.

"In that moment, I just take my batting gloves and say: 'OK, I'm the man,'" he said. "Go out and hit the ball hard."

Which is exactly what he did. With the bases loaded and two outs in a 3-hour, 42-minute marathon, Ramos fell behind in the count 0-2, then took a ball, then fouled two more pitches off before drilling a slider from Phillies reliever Michael Schwimer over shortstop Jimmy Rollins' head. Steve Lombardozzi came racing home and then took off to join the celebration near first base as Ramos was mobbed by teammates upon delivering the base hit that gave the Nationals' a 4-3 victory over their hated division rivals.

"The at-bat didn't start out too good," Johnson said. "But it ended good."

A crowd of 34,377, lured by a team-sponsored promotion to take back their park from the Phillies fans who in the past have invaded South Capitol Street, let out a roar previously heard only a handful of times in this facility. Having waited through nearly four hours of baseball, watching as the home team threatened to push across the go-ahead run but was unable to do it despite 23 men on base, those fans were rewarded with one of the more-satisfying of the Nationals' NL East-leading 17 victories.

"It speaks about the character of this team," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We want to win. It was nice, obviously, to have the crowd behind us tonight. I'd give it 70-30 probably. But better than 20-80 the other way."

Truth be told, the Nationals couldn't have drawn up a much better script for the first game of a weekend series they've been hyping for months. With young stars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper both in the lineup for a surprising club that has spent the last 24 days in first place, there was plenty of anticipation in the stands when the game began.

That anticipation only built up over the course of 11 innings, experiencing some early downs when Strasburg served up two home runs but bouncing back up when role players Chad Tracy and Jesus Flores produced the three RBI necessary to keep this game alive.

Not that the Nationals didn't have plenty of opportunities to put the Phillies away earlier. They stranded 14 men on base, including two in the sixth and three in the eighth.

All the squandered chances left players frustrated and perhaps at times even defeated. Their manager, though, looked at the situation in a different light.

"Actually, at this point I really like it, because we're threatening," Johnson said. "A lot of times this year we've been awful quiet with the bats. I knew it's coming, and it was nice to see quality at-bats from some guys that haven't been doing it."

Reinvigorated by five scoreless innings from five different relievers -- Tom Gorzelanny, Craig Stammen, Henry Rodriguez, Tyler Clippard and Ryan Perry -- the Nationals came up to bat in the 11th, determined to push that final, winning run across.

They managed to do it all with two outs, the rally jump-started by Lombardozzi's single to right. That brought Harper to the plate with a chance to win the game with one swing, and the crowd rose in anticipation of a magical moment. Instead, everyone had to settle for another quality at-bat out of the 19-year-old, who fell behind 0-2 and then battled his way to his third walk of the night.

Jayson Werth also drew a free pass from Schwimer, loading the bases for Ramos and setting the stage for the catcher.

"I was the last guy on the bench," Ramos said. "And, you know, I just was thinking: 'Try to get the runners in.'"

He did, setting off a mad celebration that players were still trying to process nearly an hour later.

"I was freaking out," Lombardozzi said. "I threw my helmet and got to Ramos as fast as possible. I was saying to myself: 'Did I hit home plate? I hope I did.'"

He sure did. And because of it, the Nationals gave themselves -- and their fans -- a heart-stopping victory, and perhaps even more reason to believe this is merely the first step toward even bigger things.

"Right now, it's just a game," Desmond said. "It's just one game. We've got to go out and play 'em hard tomorrow, and we've got to play the rest of the games for the rest of the season hard. And hopefully there's meaningful baseball between both of us teams towards the end of the year."

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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]