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Nats win marathon in dramatic fashion


Nats win marathon in dramatic fashion

In a marathon ballgame that featured plenty of young players in Nationals uniforms experiencing pennant race baseball for the first time in their lives, who would have thought the winning run would wind up scoring because of a brain cramp by the Braves' three-time All-Star and seven-year veteran?

Maybe there truly is something special about the 2012 Nationals, who kept trying to find ways to lose Monday night's showdown with Atlanta yet managed to hang around long enough to watch Dan Uggla butcher Chad Tracy's sharp grounder in the bottom of the 13th, allowing Danny Espinosa to slide across the plate with the run that gave the home team a thrilling 5-4 victory in the most significant game in the club's brief history.

"We're very young," manager Davey Johnson said. "This is great. This is the learning curve. This is experience."

The opener of a three-game series that could see the Nationals all but bury the Braves in the division race -- or allow their lone remaining competitor to close the gap -- turned into an epic battle deep into the night.

By the time Espinosa slid across the plate at 12:28 a.m., much of what had transpired up to that point -- a 56-minute rain delay, a 4-run first inning for the Nationals, a ragged start for Jordan Zimmermann, countless missed opportunities for both teams to win -- felt like ancient history.

All that seemed to matter was the fact the Nationals found some way to emerge victorious, and in the process ascend to 30 games over .500 for the first time while also extending their lead over Atlanta to six games with 40 to play.

"This was almost like a playoff atmosphere," Tracy said. "These are the type of teams you're going to be playing. Why not prepare for them now?"

If anything, the less-experienced Nationals played much of the night like a team that hasn't been in this position before.

Zimmermann, the majors' ERA leader at the start of the night, labored through five innings, throwing 102 pitches and giving up four runs.

"I was terrible," the right-hander said.

Shortstop Ian Desmond dropped a pair of routine throws that could have proved costly but ultimately didn't factor into the outcome.

After pouncing on Tim Hudson for four runs in the bottom of the first, the Nationals' lineup was stone-cold silent over the next 11 innings, totaling six hits (and zero runs) until the final rally in the 13th.

And a bullpen that was completely maxed out put runners in scoring position in the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and 11th innings yet managed somehow not to let any of them score.

"A lot of us have never played in an important baseball game since college or high school or maybe the minor leagues," said Craig Stammen, the last of seven Nationals relievers to appear in the game. "So I think it's important to get a little nervous or anxious, a little more adrenaline going on. I think it's definitely important to play games like that."

It helps, though, when you go on to win, which the Nationals did in bizarre fashion.

With one out and a man on first, catcher Kurt Suzuki tapped a high chopper over the mound and toward the left side of the infield. By the time Chipper Jones wound up fielding the ball, Suzuki was able to leg out the single. More importantly, Espinosa (who had been breaking off first base on the pitch) noticed nobody covering third base and thus raced all the way around without drawing a throw.

"I saw everyone kind of break for the ball," Espinosa said. "And once I saw everybody break, I hit second and I saw that there was no one at third. I just kept going."

With the winning run now 90 feet away and only one out on the board, the Braves were forced to bring their infield in with Tracy at the plate.

Though the veteran was the logical choice to pinch-hit for Stammen in that spot, his use would have forced the Nationals into turning to an unlikely pitcher for the 14th inning: Edwin Jackson, who two days ago threw 103 pitches during a seven-inning start. Jackson was scheduled to throw his between-starts bullpen session on Tuesday, so Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty asked if he'd be willing to pitch a couple of innings of relief in this game instead.

"I wasn't doing it for heroism," Jackson said. "But the bullpen was done. It was a game that we could possibly win. It's definitely a game where they don't want to throw position players. It's not a giveaway game. So I guess I was the next best option to legitimately have a chance to win."

Turned out Jackson's services were never needed, though when Tracy drilled Cristhian Martinez's pitch into the ground on the right side of the infield, it appeared for a moment like the Braves might escape the jam.

Uggla had to go down to a knee to get the ball hit just to his left, but he appeared to have time to throw to the plate and retire Espinosa, who was running on contact. But the veteran second baseman froze, thinking he might have a better shot at a double play that would end the inning.

Just one problem: Suzuki, the runner on first base, made a heads-up move to freeze and not give Uggla an easy opportunity to tag him and then toss to first base for the double play. Confounded, Uggla bobbled the ball and watched as it fell harmlessly to the ground without him ever making a throw or tagging anyone.

"I was going over pretty much every situation that might or could happen," he said. "I was like, if he hits a ball to my left, or hits a ball hard right at me, I can just tag Kurt and touch first and we can be out of it. He hit me a tough groundball that I had to drop to my knees to catch, and I didn't exactly know where Kurt was. Once I got up and I just tried to throw the ball home, I couldn't get the thing out of my glove."

As Espinosa slid in safely and Tracy crossed first base, the ball remained sitting in the infield grass. What remained of a small-yet-boisterous crowd of 21,298 let out one final roar, then headed for the exits knowing Washington's baseball team had just reached new heights in most stunning fashion.

Thirty games over .500. Six games up in the division. Ten games up in the wild-card race.

All thanks to a wild finish to the most important ballgame this town had hosted in a long time.

"That's the way to set the tone for the series," Tracy said. "We would have liked to have been out of here in nine innings. But, hey, we'll take the win."

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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]