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Nats ready to host postseason game at last


Nats ready to host postseason game at last

Though there was legitimate optimism surrounding the Nationals when this season began, it took some time before the city fully bought into the notion this team could win big in 2012.

Indeed, six of the Nationals' first 13 home games this season drew crowds under 20,000 to South Capitol Street.

Slowly but surely, though, the town bought into this team. And by the time the Nationals were wrapping up the regular season -- and their first-ever NL East title -- a ballpark that had never been known as a particularly rowdy venue had turned into something not seen around these parts in a long time.

"It doesn't go unnoticed," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "You could tell early on, it was almost more of a social gathering: Come out, nothing else to do, we'll just go hang out at the park. And now it's turned into some die-hard fans, some people probably skipping work and skipping school to come see the Nats. Our last few regular season home games, I think we're about as close to playoff atmosphere as you could get."

Nothing, of course, can completely duplicate a playoff atmosphere, which makes Wednesday's first-in-79-years event particularly exciting for so many.

After opening their National League Division Series with a two-game split in St. Louis, the Nationals now get to host a playoff game in their hometown, in their home park, in front of their home fans.

Considering how few people among the sellout crowd for Game 3 on Wednesday afternoon would have even had the opportunity to attend the last postseason ballgame in the District (Game 5 of the 1933 World Series), this is going to be no small-time event.

"We're excited, not only for ourselves and for all the hard work we've put in this year," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "But to bring a playoff game to D.C., it's something that's been a long time coming. They've been through a lot, a lot of tough years. It's an exciting time in the Beltway."

The setting won't be ideal -- Major League Baseball scheduled this game for 1:07 p.m. on a Wednesday, forcing fans to either skip work or school or pawn off their tickets on others who are available -- but that won't dampen the spirit as Washington puts itself on a true national baseball stage for the first time.

Official postseason logos have been painted along the baselines. Fans will be given red rally towels when they enter the park. Players and coaches will be introduced before the national anthem.

And an old friend will step to the mound to throw out the ceremonial first pitch: Frank Robinson.

The first manager in Nationals history -- not to mention one of the greatest players in baseball history -- has made a couple of appearances here since he was fired at the end of the 2006 season, but never in a public capacity. After a contentious breakup with former general manager Jim Bowden and former team president Stan Kasten, Robinson accepted the invitation from ownership to attend Wednesday's game.

The response, from fans and players alike, should be among the day's highlights.

"Oh, absolutely, hands down," said shortstop Ian Desmond, who changed his jersey number from 6 to 20 this season in honor of Robinson. "When he signed up here, he had this in mind. He wanted to start something, and he did. He's got his stamp on this organization forever. I'm forever indebted to him, and I think D.C. will be also."

There is, of course, a more significant task at hand for the Nationals than welcoming back a baseball legend. There is a slightly important ballgame to be played, one that could prove the turning point in this series.

Plenty of teams have stared elimination in the face and won back-to-back postseason games at home. Just look at the Cardinals, who pulled off that feat in last year's World Series.

But there's a distinct advantage to holding a 2-1 lead in a best-of-five series versus facing a 2-1 deficit.

"We know what it's going to take," LaRoche said. "I think we're going to try to keep it to one game at a time and try not to look too far ahead. We've got a big one tomorrow. If we don't get it done, we're in a bad spot. But we know how important that is. It would be nice to get that one and move on."

And, for so many who have anticipated this event for so long, it will be nice to experience postseason baseball in the District of Columbia.

"We've been a good home team, and we've put ourselves in a very good position to come home and just win a series," said Ryan Zimmerman, the only man to appear in at least one game during each of the Nationals' eight seasons. "If we can do that like we've done a lot of times this year, then we'll be sitting pretty.

"We're all excited to go out there tomorrow in front of our fans, in front of a full stadium of Nationals fans -- finally -- and see what it's like."

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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]