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Washington becomes a baseball town


Washington becomes a baseball town

How does a town respond to something that hasn't happened in 79 years? How does a city that hasn't hosted a postseason ballgame since Franklin Roosevelt's first term in the White House catch pennant fever? And how does a region known mostly for dividing itself down the middle along political party lines come together in support of one common goal: Winning a World Series?

Washington is about to answer all of those questions, and the rest of the country is about to find out what those who live here have known for decades: D.C. is a big event town.

And for the next week (and perhaps the entire month) there's going to be no bigger event in town than Nationals playoff games.

From the moment the Nationals clinched their city's first postseason berth since 1933, there's been a baseball buzz around the District and surrounding suburbs not experienced in generations, if ever. The local papers are filled with more baseball coverage than many have time to read. Local TV news has hopped on board the bandwagon. Radio stations are announcing plans for Super Bowl-like pregame and postgame coverage of first-round playoff games.

Politicians and network news anchors have been showing up at Nationals Park, some of them mysteriously becoming part of the clubhouse champagne celebration. The President of the United States has expressed his support of the Nationals (as well as his hometown White Sox, who have since been eliminated from contention).

And, in perhaps the craziest example of Nationals buzz overtaking the city, the long-awaited triumph of Teddy in the Presidents Race on Wednesday instantly became one of the biggest (non-) news stories in the country. Moments after he crossed the finish line ahead of nemeses George, Tom and Abe, Teddy became a trending topic on Twitter, with a replay of the race becoming the No. 1 "highlight" on ESPN's SportsCenter (ahead of Miguel Cabrera securing MLB's first Triple Crown in 45 years).

For those who have followed the Nationals since the franchise arrived from Montreal following the 2004 season, there's a surreal nature to all this attention. Sure, there was hype and buzz surrounding the Nats during their inaugural 2005 campaign, especially when they took over first place in the NL East for a stretch in early summer.

But few outside of the die-hards cared much about what was going on during the dark days from 2006-09, when a 73-89 record was considered a significant achievement. Around the country, just about the only time the Nationals were mentioned beyond a passing breath was when they were being mocked, whether for misspelling their name on a couple of jerseys, producing the worst TV ratings in the majors, getting booed in their own park on Opening Day by Phillies fans or losing games at an astonishing rate.

Then, at long last, came a glimpse of what could be: June 8, 2010, the night Stephen Strasburg made his major-league debut. Considering all the hype surrounding the rookie right-hander from the day he was drafted No. 1 in the country by the Nationals, his first career start turned into a major baseball event in D.C.

And when Strasburg surpassed everyone's expectations by striking out 14 Pirates over seven innings, an overflow crowd at Nationals Park rejoiced in a manner that suggested this could indeed become a baseball town ... if the team ever started winning.

There were glimpses of it late in 2011, with manager Davey Johnson guiding the team he took over in midseason through a strong September and coming within two games of producing the club's first-ever winning record.

But it wasn't until the Nationals burst out of the gates in 2012, opening the season 14-4 and taking over first place in the division, that the skeptics began to believe. And over the course of the summer, fans began turning out in bigger numbers and more and more people around town became engaged with what turned into the best team in baseball.

Now, you can't walk more than a few blocks without spotting someone wearing a curly W cap or a Bryce Harper jersey. Now, it's perfectly acceptable to begin a conversation about local sports not with an analysis of the Redskins' next game but with a debate over which potential postseason opponent the Nationals would be most likely to beat.

The toughest ticket in town right now isn't to see RG3 and the Skins face the Falcons on Sunday. It's to see Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth host either the Cardinals or Braves in Game 3 of the NLDS on Wednesday. Starting times haven't been announced yet, but when they are, thousands of federal government employees and regular working Joes in Maryland and Virginia are going to be putting in requests to leave early to catch the first postseason ballgame here in three generations.

It's uncharted territory for just about everyone involved. But it's left everyone in a state of euphoria for now, then ultimately high tension as this city gets to experience the meat grinder of emotions that comes with postseason baseball.

Fans in New York, Boston and Philadelphia -- regular participants in this exercise -- may scoff and ask why this is a big deal.

Washington sports fans need not respond. They've spent the last six months falling in love with the National Pastime, and they're about to be rewarded with a honeymoon that could last anywhere from four days to four weeks and could bring this town together like few past events have.

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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]