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Nats swing and miss again


Nats swing and miss again

PITTSBURGH -- Rarely in his 10-plus months on the job has Davey Johnson expressed the kind of frustration that came pouring out of the Nationals manager's office at PNC Park Wednesday night following a 4-2 loss to the Pirates.

"You've got to make contact," he said. "You can't drive a run in without making contact."

Generally upbeat and positive throughout his tenure with the Nationals, and always the first to give public and private votes of confidence to his players during good times and bad times, Johnson was as upset with his team's performance in this game as he's been on any previous occasion.

Can you blame the 69-year-old skipper after watching his lineup strike out 11 times -- all swings and misses, no called third strikes -- against a quintet of Pirates relievers pressed into service when starter Erik Bedard departed after throwing only eight pitches due to back spasms?

"Sometimes we expand and chase balls early in the count, and we just can't do that," Johnson said. "That's not being a good hitter. We had so many chances. I thought, two or three times, just a little bloop here and we'll win this ballgame. It's just not coming."

There was no singular corner of the clubhouse to place blame on for this one. Poor at-bats came from just about everyone in the lineup. But the final two innings perhaps best exemplified the problem.

Cut to the top of the eighth, with the Nationals trailing 3-2 but threatening after loading the bases with one out. Up stepped Danny Espinosa, the slumping second baseman who did come through the previous inning with a double to left, ultimately scoring on Chad Tracy's sacrifice fly.

This time, Espinosa swung and missed at a 3-2 fastball from right-hander Jason Grilli, stranded the bases loaded on his NL-leading 39th strikeout of the season.

Moments later, Rick Ankiel swung and missed at a 1-2 fastball at his eyelids, killing the potential rally in a pattern that has become all too familiar for the Nationals.

"I wouldn't necessarily say it's a pattern," hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. "I'd say at times it manifests itself. The pressure builds because I believe in a lineup that's best when each guy knows that the guy behind him can do the job. So then you can be patient and be a little more aggressive in your zones, not expanding. And if they want to walk you, pitch around you, whatever, the next guy picks up the load. And at times when that's happened, we just haven't taken advantage of the next guy picking up that load."

Similar events unfolded in the ninth, with closer Joel Hanrahan putting himself in a jam after hitting Steve Lombardozzi in the foot and then serving up a one-out double to Ian Desmond. That left the tying run in scoring position for two of the Nationals' best hitters (Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman) but neither was able to produce with the game on the line.

Harper, who did draw a fourth-inning walk to reach base for the ninth time in 10 big-league games, fell behind to Hanrahan 0-2 and then popped out to the shortstop. Zimmerman, who did double in the eighth, then whiffed at a 3-2 fastball for his third strikeout of the night.

"I worked the count," Zimmerman said. "I got a pitch I could hit. I just didn't hit it."

Though Johnson and Eckstein both preach an aggressive approach at the plate and encourage their hitters to swing with force, both acknowledge more players need to shorten their strokes in certain situations, especially with two strikes.

When it comes down to it, I think we have to get better with two strikes," Zimmerman said. "No matter who it is, we've got to shorten up a little bit maybe, especially in those situations with one out and runners in scoring position. I'm not saying anyone in particular. We've all been, unfortunately, guilty of it sometimes this year."

Johnson said he wasn't prepared to talk about any possible lineup changes -- "I'm getting over this one before I think about tomorrow" -- but it wouldn't be surprising if Espinosa is given Thursday's series finale off and Lombardozzi is given a chance to make only his second start of the season at second base.

If nothing else, Johnson could justify the swap as an attempt to get his team to put more balls in play. Espinosa is striking out in 31.7 percent of his plate appearances this season, the highest rate among all qualifying NL hitters. The two players on the Nationals' roster with the lowest strikeout rate: Harper (9.5 percent) and Lombardozzi (7.0 percent).

Of course, the Nationals' offensive woes aren't confined solely to strikeouts. They've now totaled five or fewer hits in an astounding 11 of 30 games this season.

"I don't know if guys are feeling too much pressure because we're having trouble generating runs but, boy," Johnson said. "Guys, the pitcher's in a jam. Just relax, and if he throws it over, hit it.

"But tonight was especially frustrating. No doubt about it."

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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]