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Nats live to see another day


Nats live to see another day

Updated at 10:10 p.m.

At some point, as the at-bat dragged on and on and as he fouled off pitch after pitch after pitch, Jayson Werth lost track and had to sneak a glance at the Nationals Park scoreboard to see just how many times Lance Lynn had wound up and delivered the ball to him in the bottom of the ninth.

The scoreboard read 12 total pitches for Lynn.

"I was like, is that right?" Werth said. "I had to really study the board to make sure that was correct. But I guess it didn't last much longer."

No, it certainly didn't. Seconds later, Lynn delivered his 13th pitch of the pivotal at-bat in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. Like nine of the previous 12, it was a fastball, this one registering 96 mph.

Unlike any of the others, it crossed the plate belt-high, right down the heart of the strike zone. And unlike any of the others, it wasn't fouled off into the stands. Nor, however, did it land anywhere in the field of play.

No, this pitch landed in the back left corner of the left-field bullpen, not to mention the annals of Washington sports lore.

With one mighty swing of his bat, Werth saved the Nationals' season, cemented his place in Nationals history and sent a throng of 44,392 into sheer pandemonium. After launching the home run that gave his team a 2-1 victory in Game 4 of the National League Division Series, Werth will never again have to justify his decision to sign a $126 million contract with a club that had never won anything before.

"This is what you play all season for," the 32-year-old right fielder said. "This is why you work out all winter. This is why you start playing T-ball when you're four. This is baseball, man. This is why you play."

And play again the Nationals will. They'll be right back on South Capitol Street at 8:37 p.m. Friday for a winner-take-all Game 5 of what has become a remarkable series between one young ballclub that posted the sport's best regular-season record and a veteran-laden squad trying to retain its World Series crown.

And they'll do it in front of another sellout crowd that experienced more dizzying highs and terrifying lows over 2 hours and 55 minutes Thursday -- not to mention over the last five days -- than three generations of Washington baseball fans ever hoped to realize.

"It was nervous. Exciting. All of the emotions that you can think of," reliever Tyler Clippard said. "It was one of those special games that I feel privileged to have been a part of."

The euphoria that capped the night was in stark contrast to the nervous anticipation that filled the park when this elimination game began. Fans desperately needed something positive to cheer, whether from the pitching staff or (preferably) from a lineup that hadn't yet scored in its home ballpark in the postseason.

Ross Detwiler set the tone by retiring six of the first seven batters he faced, cruising through his first two innings. Adam LaRoche then supplied the big blast everyone wanted.

The crowd let out a roar when LaRoche tagged Kyle Lohse's 3-2 fastball down the right-field line to open the bottom of the second, only to sigh as it hooked foul. No worries, because seconds later he tagged another 3-2 fastball, this time leaving no doubt where it would land.

The ball cleared the fence in straightaway center field, a solo homer that gave the Nationals a 1-0 lead and at long last gave the sellout crowd reason to dial up the decibel meter.

"It was good to get on the board and get the lead," manager Davey Johnson said.

The Nationals did, however, give the run right back in the top of the third, not so much because of Detwiler but some shaky defense. The left-hander walked No. 8 hitter/pest Pete Kozma to start the inning -- an obvious no-no -- but he would have gotten out of the inning had Ian Desmond not booted a chopper to short. That left runners on the corners and allowed Kozma to score on Carlos Beltran's sacrifice fly to center (with Bryce Harper making an ill-advised, airmail throw to the plate.

The game now 1-1, both pitchers settled in. For Lohse -- a veteran who went 16-3 this season -- this wasn't as big a deal, but for Detwiler -- who just completed his first full big-league season -- this was significant.

Start with the fact Detwiler had been hammered by the same Cardinals lineup 11 days ago at Busch Stadium. Throw in the dire situation for the Nationals. And then don't forget the small fact he likely made the postseason rotation only because of Stephen Strasburg's early-September shutdown.

With all that hovering over his head, Detwiler went out and did exactly what the Nationals needed. He pitched around that unearned run in the third and kept the Cardinals from scoring again before he departed following the sixth, showing few, if any, nerves along the way.

"You know, my nerves were worse in the ninth inning, before J-Dub's at-bat," he said. "It wasn't too bad. I tried to look at it as another game. I felt like I really had something to prove, especially after the last start against them."

With the game still knotted at 1 and with his middle relief corps having struggled in the series, Johnson turned to a surprising arm for the seventh inning: Jordan Zimmermann. The right-hander threw 63 pitches in Game 2 on Monday, but would have thrown his regular between-starts bullpen session today, so Johnson let him know he'd be available for this all-important game.

That proved quite an adept move by the 69-year-old skipper, because Zimmermann flat-out dominated the top of the seventh. He struck out Kozma on a 97-mph fastball, dialing his velocity up several notches from where it usually sits. He struck out Lohse on a 91-mph slider, way up from his usual velocity. Then he dialed it up to 97 again to get Jon Jay looking, eliciting the biggest roar of the crowd all day (up to that juncture).

"I knew I was only going to be out there for one inning, but I wasn't trying to throw it harder," Zimmermann said. "Adrenaline just took over."

Clippard picked up right where Zimmermann left off, striking out three more batters in the top of the eighth and pumping his fist as he hopped off the mound. Drew Storen then completed the bullpen's incredible trifecta, striking out three batters of his own in the top of the ninth to give the Nationals' relief corps nine strikeouts in three brilliant innings of work.

"It was electric," Johnson said. "They rose to the occasion."

The game, of course, was still undecided. A hero still needed to step to the forefront and etch his place into this game, this series and this town's sporting history.

That hero proved to be the highest-paid player on the roster, who in his biggest moment to date with this franchise was worth every cent the Nationals paid him and ensured this magical baseball season will extend for at least one more day.

"Before the game, [reliever] Michael Gonzalez asked me how I felt," Werth said. "I said: 'I feel like I want to play tomorrow.' And we get that chance."

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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]