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The Nats' stopper does it again


The Nats' stopper does it again

He's all of 23 years old, with only 31 big-league starts to his name. The Nationals don't care. They've anointed Stephen Strasburg their ace, and there's no one they'd rather have on the mound when they really need to win a ballgame.

"He's a true No. 1," manager Davey Johnson said. "And he's still learning. I think the best is yet to come with him."

A scary thought, indeed, because even at this relatively novice stage of his career, Strasburg is already establishing himself as one of the true stoppers in the sport.

Take Wednesday night's 3-2 victory over the Rays. The Nationals entered this one on a four-game losing streak, perhaps starting to question their ability to beat the elite competition they're currently facing from the AL East.

There may be no better pitcher in such a situation, though, than Strasburg. Four times this season he's started with the Nationals mired in a losing streak of at least three games. And all four times he's earned a win.

"With him on the mound, you have a lot of confidence in winning that game that day," rookie outfielder Bryce Harper said. "Stras is unbelievable on the bump. He's a specimen out there."

And more and more, he's resembling the man who currently holds the title of "Baseball's Best Pitcher." Yes, Strasburg is beginning to compare favorably to Justin Verlander.

Begin with the pure numbers. Through 14 starts this season, Strasburg is now 9-1 with a 2.46 ERA, leading the majors with 110 strikeouts in only 84 innings. Verlander's stats through the first 14 starts of his MVP 2011 campaign with the Tigers: 7-3, 2.89 ERA, 93 strikeouts in 102 23 innings.

Lest anyone get carried away, this isn't to suggest Strasburg's 2012 numbers are going to surpass Verlander's 2011 numbers by season's end. Verlander did, after all, go 17-2 with a 2.06 ERA over his final 20 starts. Strasburg, meanwhile, is expected to be shut down once he reaches 160 or so innings and won't be making any appearances during the late-September stretch drive.

Point is, Strasburg is dominating as thoroughly as any pitcher could given the strict limitations the Nationals have placed on him.

"He's very good," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "I had never seen it in person. ... He is very, very exciting."

Perhaps the most favorable comparison between Strasburg and Verlander is each pitcher's ability to get stronger the more he throws, peaking not on his first pitch but on his last.

Strasburg certainly put that trait on display Wednesday night during his dominant seventh inning. With his pitch count already in triple digits, he struck out the final two batters he faced: Will Rhymes on an 89 mph changeup, then Desmond Jennings on back-to-back 98 mph fastballs (the hardest pitches he'd thrown since the first inning).

"They kind of say when you see the finish line, you get a little bit more adrenaline going," Strasburg said. "So I'd say maybe that's a little bit what happens. But I don't think I'm going out there with a mindset I'm just going to let everything go."

Each pitch Strasburg threw during his final innings carried plenty of added pressure, because with the Nationals clinging to a one-run lead, one mistake could have made all the difference in the world.

Not that he didn't get a little bit of help behind him, most notably from Steve Lombardozzi in the top of the sixth. With two outs and the potential tying run on second, the Nationals' rookie left fielder came charging in to make a diving catch of Jose Molina's sinking liner, quash the rally and bring the crowd of 27,485 to its feet.

Lombardozzi, a career second baseman who never played the outfield until this season, actually broke backward upon seeing Molina strike the ball but quickly recovered.

"At first I took a step back and I realized it was going to be short," he said. "So I just was hauling my butt in and I was able to make the catch."

Each defensive play late loomed large because a Nationals lineup that pounced on Rays right-hander Chris Archer in his big-league debut for three first-inning runs went silent the rest of the night. Lombardozzi's double, Harper's RBI single and Ian Desmond's RBI single proved to be their club's only hits of the game.

"I'm glad we did it in the first," Johnson said as he opened his postgame news conference.

The manager also was glad to be able to hand the ball to his ace, the 23-year-old who seems to get better as each start progresses, with a limitless future in front of him.

"He does like to use a lot of his pitches early in the game to get the feel for it," Johnson said. "And then as he gets into the game, where he has confidence in all of his pitches, he gets the feeling he can locate all the pitches where he wants them and he can step it up a notch if he needs it.

"That's basically his gameplan. Pretty good one."

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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]