Quick Links

A pennant race comes to Washington


A pennant race comes to Washington

The crowd of 34,827 -- which certainly looked and sounded more like a sellout crowd -- began to rise as Michael Morse stepped to the plate with the bases loaded in the bottom of the fourth Friday night.

The crescendo grew as Morse took a ball inside from Johan Santana, then broke his bat fouling another one off, then took a mighty hack at an 89 mph fastball at the letters.

As the ball sailed over the out-of-town scoreboard in right-center, the first grand slam of the season by the Nationals, the roar turned deafening. And it didn't let up until Morse was coaxed out of the dugout for a two-arms-raised-followed-by-a-twirling-fist-pump curtain call that brought the emotions out of even the most-hardened members of the Nationals.

"That was awesome," Jayson Werth said. "From third base, I was probably just as excited as all the fans."

Why shouldn't they all be excited? Morse's four-run blast put the Nationals on top and put them on course for a 6-4 victory over the Mets to start this homestand off in fine fashion and catapult the local ballclub to 29 games over the .500 mark.

So this is what a pennant race feels like.

Welcomed home after a long, three-city road trip that featured enough highlights to warrant a 3-minute video on the stadium scoreboard before they took the field, the Nationals unofficially kicked off the home stretch of a remarkable season in style.

They saw Bryce Harper club a two-run homer of his own off Santana. They saw Ross Detwiler overcome some first-inning jitters to produce a quality start. They saw All-Star Ian Desmond return from a four-week stint on the disabled list. And they saw Tyler Clippard escape another harrowing ninth inning to seal their league-best 74th victory in 119 games.

And perhaps most significantly, they did it all in front of a boisterous fan base that is beginning to turn South Capitol Street into the site of a nightly block party, a fact that wasn't lost among the players.

"Absolutely," Detwiler said. "It makes you a little kid again to kind of look around. It's one of the best feelings in the world."

We can only imagine what it felt like for Morse to round the bases and receive a curtain call, because the slugger sneaked out of the postgame clubhouse without making himself available to reporters. His teammates and manager were left to speak about the impact he's made on what has become one of the sport's deepest and most-productive lineups.

"The whole first half of what he was here was like 70 percent of what he was last year," Davey Johnson said. "But he's in a good spot right now. The whole middle of the lineup is really in a good spot, and that's why we've been scoring a lot of runs."

It certainly helped to have seven key regulars (Morse, Werth, Harper, Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa) together in one lineup for the first time this season. With Werth (who now boasts a .509 on-base percentage in 14 games since returning from a broken wrist) taking over leadoff duties and Desmond and Espinosa providing some thunder from the No. 6 and No. 7 spots, this is no longer a team that must rely on top-flight pitching every single night.

"It's great," said Desmond, who went 0-for-4 in his return but hit a couple of balls hard. "When you can put a guy who has done what he's done like Jayson Werth in the leadoff spot with no complaints, when he comes out and produces, that speaks volumes about the kind of character we have in here. Guys are just willing to do whatever they have to do to, by any means."

It took that lineup a little while to get itself going Friday night. Santana, the two-time AL Cy Young Award winner who tossed a 134-pitch no-hitter on June 1 but hasn't been the same since, retired the first nine batters he faced.

But then Werth laced a sharp single up the middle to open the bottom of the fourth. And then Harper and Zimmerman followed with nearly identical base hits, setting the stage for Morse to really inflict some damage.

"He's tough," Werth said of Santana. "Even at 89 mph, he's still a great pitcher. It was evident that he mowed through our lineup the first time through. It was more just grinding out the at-bats and keeping your nose down and putting a good at-bat today. And we managed to get three hits right back up the box, and Mikey hits a slam the other way. It's just good hitting, really."

One inning later, Harper added his own blast, a two-run homer to right that brought another roar from the crowd and more than made up for his defensive gaffe in the top of the first when he airmailed a throw to the plate and hit the backstop on the fly.

Harper wound up 2-for-3 with a walk, one of his best offensive performances in weeks. Afterward, though, the 19-year-old was informed by Johnson he'll be out of the lineup Saturday as the manager seeks to give him another mental break while also giving fellow rookie Tyler Moore a chance to start.

"There's 25 guys," Johnson said. "I've said it 100 times: You don't just win with eight. ... Everybody's contributed so far, and I'm not going to just forget about the guys that had a pretty defined role until we got healthy. We're in a good place. It's where good teams need to be."

It's hard to dispute with the results. The season is nearly 75 percent complete now, and the Nationals continue to own baseball's best record.

And they're starting to put it all on display in front of large and appreciative crowds that are hopping aboard for the first pennant race this town has experienced in three generations.

"This is what makes it fun," Werth said. "I've been in this situation a few times before, and this is what it's all about. You play all season to put yourself in this situation. This is what it's all about. This is why you play your whole life, for this situation."

Quick Links

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. 

Quick Links

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]