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A St. Louis stinker puts Nats party on hold


A St. Louis stinker puts Nats party on hold

ST. LOUIS -- They wanted to get this thing over with.

Sure, it's always nice to celebrate at home in front of your own fans, but the Nationals have been inching toward their first-ever division title for quite a while now, and each day that passes without them finishing it off feels like a wasted day, another day in which Davey Johnson feels forced to play all of his regulars instead of giving them a pre-postseason breather.

So the Nationals desperately wanted to celebrate at Busch Stadum Sunday afternoon, either via their own win over the Cardinals or an admittedly unlikely Braves loss at Turner Field.

In the end, they got neither. Atlanta cruised past the Mets again. And the Nationals were ambushed by St. Louis' potent lineup, with starter Ross Detwiler tagged for seven early runs and Chien-Ming Wang adding kerosene to the fire with an ugly performance out of the bullpen.

That all added up to a lopsided, 10-4 loss and (more importantly) no reduction of the Nationals' magic number. Now leading the Braves by three games with three to play, they'll head home and hope now to clinch the the NL East on Monday against a Phillies club that was already eliminated from postseason contention over the weekend.

It's not the scenario Johnson envisioned when he filled out his lineup card Sunday morning, all eight regulars in there, including catcher Kurt Suzuki (who started behind the plate for the ninth straight day).

Johnson had been saying all week he wouldn't hesitate to use up all of his best bullets, as much as necessary, to clinch the division. After that, he'd start resting guys. But a few of his managerial decisions in this game brought that sentiment into question a bit.

Which isn't to say Johnson was the No. 1 reason for this loss. The blame begins with Detwiler, who in the biggest start of his young career fell flat.

Pitching 40 miles from his hometown of Wentzville, Mo., for the first time as a big-leaguer, Detwiler entered this one with plenty of emotions running through his slender frame, knowing he'd have a chance to pitch the Nationals to a division crown in front of dozens of family and friends whose allegiances might have been a bit torn.

Perhaps the 26-year-old lefty couldn't harness all that emotion, though, because he had all sorts of trouble finding the strike zone. He escaped the first inning without allowing a run, but then issued back-to-back walks to open the bottom of the second. He appeared to get himself out of the jam by inducing a tailor-made, 4-6-3 double play grounder out of Daniel Descalso, but Danny Espinosa booted the ball, everyone was safe and the inning was prolonged.

It really was prolonged, because Detwiler responded by serving up a two-run double to Pete Kozma, an RBI single to Jon Jay and then a two-run homer to Carlo Beltran. Just like that, the Nationals trailed 5-0 and Detwiler sauntered around the mound with a look of disgust on his face.

Johnson let his starter take the mound again for the bottom of the third, but he already had Wang warming in the bullpen in case of trouble. Which Detwiler immediately got himself into, issuing a one-out walk and then surrendering another single to Descalso. Johnson strode to the mound, took the ball from his starter and handed it to Wang.

The Taiwanese right-hander has little experience as a reliever, and he hasn't been particularly effective in that role this season, but this might have been his worst performance to date. Wang's first pitch went to the backstop, letting a run score. His next pitch? Also to the backstop, letting a runner advance to third (he then scored moments later on a sacrifice fly, extending the Cardinals' lead to 7-0).

Just when things looked their bleakest, though, the Nationals came storming back in a last-ditch attempt to make a game of this. Bryce Harper led off the fourth with his 22nd homer of the season, leaving him two shy of Tony Conigliaro's all-time record for a teenager. Adam LaRoche singled. Ian Desmond doubled him home. And Espinosa atoned for his earlier error by blasting a two-run homer to right, trimming the lead to 7-4.

His team now trailing by only three runs with five innings still to go and Cardinals starter Lance Lynn on the ropes, Johnson surprisingly let Wang hit for himself with two outs and a man on base. With some awkward hacks at the plate, Wang not surprisingly struck out to kill that potential rally, then retook the mound for the bottom of the fourth hoping to stop the bleeding.

Instead, Wang opened the inning by walking Jay, then served up a two-run homer to Beltran (the veteran's second of the day, meriting a curtain call).

The Nationals now trailed 9-4, having frittered away whatever momentum they had picked up the previous inning. Nobody was warming in the bullpen. Wang was allowed to pitch another 1 23 innings before Johnson finally re-emerged from the dugout to take the ball.

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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]