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Nats swept by Braves, lead down to 5 12


Nats swept by Braves, lead down to 5 12

ATLANTA -- Davey Johnson ambled through an otherwise silent clubhouse late Sunday night -- black sweater, khaki slacks, white sneakers -- and started cracking jokes to every player he encountered.

The Nationals had just lost a sloppy game to the Braves, 5-1, had just been swept by their lone remaining challenger in the NL East and had seen their once insurmountable, 8 12-game lead shrink to 5 12 games at the end of a difficult weekend.

Their left fielder has been out since Tuesday with a left hand injury. Their second baseman is now likely to miss at least the next series with a left shoulder injury that will require an MRI. What had been baseball's best pitching staff all season is starting to show some cracks in the foundation. And what had been the league's most-potent lineup for the last month was silenced the last three days by Atlanta's pitching staff.

None of that, Johnson believes, should overshadow what the Nationals have done over the last 5 12 months, nor give them reason to worry about the 2 12 weeks they still have left in a pennant race that is far from over.

"I feel fine about where we're at," the 69-year-old manager insisted.

That sentiment was echoed among Nationals veterans, who while discouraged by the weekend's events aren't ready to hit the panic button.

"We've put ourselves in a great position," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We've played well all year. There's two weeks left of playing baseball. Everything's right in front of us."

With 16 games to play, the Nationals still hold a magic number of 11 for the division title, a magic number of 3 to clinch at least a wild-card berth. But there are a handful of reasons to be concerned, the latest Espinosa's just-revealed left shoulder issue, which could prove significant.

After missing Wednesday's series finale in New York to attend his grandmother's funeral in Arizona, Espinosa rejoined his teammates for this weekend showdown but looked lost at the plate throughout. He wound up 0-for-11 with nine strikeouts, a pop-up and a double-play grounder. And when his spot in the lineup came up with two outs in the ninth Sunday night, he was surprisingly replaced by Steve Lombardozzi (who struck out to end the game).

Turns out Espinosa has been dealing with left shoulder pain, which he finally revealed to the Nationals coaching staff late in the game, requesting he be benched.

"He's hurting," Johnson said. "I was going to hit for him, and he mentioned to one of the coaches, Rick Eckstein, that he was underwater and he was hurting the team. For him to want to come out ... he's my little Iron Man."

Johnson said Espinosa will be examined Monday afternoon in Washington by team orthopedist Wiemi Douoguih, who will administer an MRI. The club won't know for sure the extent of the injury until the results of that test come back, but Johnson said his second baseman will "probably" miss this week's series against the playoff-contending Dodgers.

Espinosa, through a team spokesman, declined to take questions after the game.

"I'm very concerned about him," said Johnson, who hopes to have left fielder Michael Morse (bone bruise in left hand) back in his lineup Tuesday.

Though the Nationals were silenced at the plate Sunday night and throughout the weekend, they were equally as ineffective on the mound and in the field during the series finale.

Gio Gonzalez, seeking to become the majors' first 20-game winner and bolster his Cy Young Award hopes, labored his way through five-plus innings, needing an astounding 83 pitches just to get through the bottom of the third before settling down somewhat and reaching the sixth.

The left-hander walked four, went to a 3-ball count to eight of the first 14 batters he faced and was yanked without retiring a batter in the sixth. But he somehow managed to only surrender two runs during that time, keeping his team in the game.

"You've just gotta make the adjustment, gotta pitch better," Gonzalez said. "You gotta learn how to pound that strike zone. I think that's where my biggest mistake today was. I wasn't being as aggressive in the first three innings. Then the next two, it was exactly what I should've been doing off the bat."

Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh -- and with Atlanta's lights-out closer Craig Kimbrel unavailable after pitching the previous two nights -- the Nationals were in position to mount a late rally. But then they were done in by two problem areas that hadn't really been problems all year: the bullpen's inability to throw strikes, and the infield's inability to make plays at crucial moments.

Right-hander Craig Stammen got the ball rolling by issuing a one-out walk to Michael Bourn. Reed Johnson then hit a chopper to third, leaving Zimmerman facing a quandary: Charge in and try to make a short-hop grab of the ball and fire either to first or second base for the out, or sit back and wait to catch the ball on a full hop and hope he still had enough time to make the throw.

"With Bourn on first base, if I take a step back and get a big hop, it's going to be tough for me to get the lead runner," he explained. "And then it's going to be a tough play to get Reed running at first, too. It's one of those plays where before the play happens, you say if it goes up, you've got to do whatever you can to get the ball and have a chance to get either one of those guys."

Zimmerman wasn't able to get either guy. He misplayed the short-hop. Worse, he lost sight of the ball as it skipped away into foul territory. By the time he retrieved it, Bourn had raced all the way around to third base.

"I just didn't know where it went after it hit off my glove," he said.

With runners now on the corners and one out, Johnson summoned Sean Burnett to face Jason Heyward in a big spot. The left-hander got what he wanted -- a sharp grounder to first base -- but now Adam LaRoche had to make a decision. Did he have enough time to turn an inning-ending double play? And if so, should he try to get Bourn at the plate or instead try for a 3-6-3 twin-killing?

LaRoche felt his best option was to step on first base and then fire to plate in an attempt to get Bourn. His throw, however, was a bit up the line and prevented catcher Kurt Suzuki from applying the tag in time.

"You know, if I try and roll it the conventional way and we don't get him, that's a run," LaRoche said. "Got some fast guys on the bases, so close to first, try and touch it and go home. Just kind of pulled it up the line. I think if I put in on the money, we've probably got him."

The meltdown continued when Burnett (after intentionally walking Chipper Jones) plunked Freddie Freeman to load the bases with two outs. Dan Uggla then delivered the nail in the coffin: a two-run single that gave the Braves a four-run lead and all but extinguished any hope of a comeback.

Thus the Nationals retreated to their silent clubhouse, concern growing on their faces as banged-up players walked around with ice packs on various injured body parts.

Johnson tried to lighten the mood and remind everyone they're still in the driver's seat. But there, too, was an understanding there's still plenty of work to be done, and the team that just swept them over the weekend isn't going to concede the division title.

"We've had some battles against them," LaRoche said. "They're the team that came back when we were up nine runs in a July game. They're pretty relentless. Watch the scoreboard all year and see how they continue to win and win, and we expected that coming in. It was going to be a dogfight."

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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]