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Gary Russell Jr. vs Oscar Escandon

Backed by an enthusiastic local cheering section of friends and family, Russell (28-1 with 17 knockouts) used a devastating array of jabs and combinations to send Escandon (25-3 with 17 knockouts) to the mat twice before referee Harvey Dock stopped the fight just one minute into the seventh round of the 12 round fight. Photos: Mike Coleman

A Night at the Park (6)

A Night at the Park

Locals enjoyed “A Night at the Park” an event hosted by Nationals 1B Ryan Zimmerman and the ziMS Foundation. This benefit has helped the ziMS Foundation raise more than $3 million in its fight against Multiple Sclerosis. The evening included cocktails and food, live and silent auctions and a performance from Virginia native and country star Canaan Smith. Photos: Devin Overbey

Photo: Michael Coleman
Photo: Michael Coleman

A Night at the Park Aims to Strike Out Multiple Sclerosis

A few hundred fortunate Washington Nationals fans got to rub elbows with some of their favorite players at the ballpark Monday night while contributing to a good cause at Ryan Zimmerman’s eighth annual A Night at the Park event to benefit victims of multiple sclerosis.

The Nationals slugger, who is enjoying a spectacular early season behind the plate with a jaw-dropping .420 batting average, joined teammates Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzales and others to raise nearly $1 million for the progressive nerve disease. Zimmerman’s ziMS Foundation has collected more than $3 million for the cause over the past eight years.

The exclusive party at the Norfolk Southern Club at Nationals Park gave guests a chance to mingle with Zimmerman and his Nationals’ teammates, sip cocktails, and nosh on salmon and steak while bidding on some impressive sports memorabilia and listening to a spirited set of live music by rising country star Canaan Smith.

“Nights like this don’t happen unless you guys step up to the plate, and every year you guys have,” Zimmerman told an admiring audience. “I hope you know how much we appreciate it.”

The first baseman, who attended the University of Virginia, explained how he started his foundation a dozen years ago as a way to help those, like his mother, who suffer from the terrible disease.

“The foundation was started basically in the living room of my parents’ house,” Zimmerman said. “We started with a golf tournament in Virginia Beach, and we do a bowling event in Charlottesville, where I went to school. It’s a completely volunteer-run foundation, and we’ve been able to give back over $3 million. Whether this cause means anything to you or it doesn’t, it means a whole lot to me.”

The Cy Young Award-winning pitcher says he enjoys lending his time to the event, and it’s no surprise the annual fundraiser has become such a success.

“Zim’s been here forever, and he’s the face of the franchise,” Scherzer said. “It’s for a great cause, and it gives everybody a chance to see the players in person; a great auction event with great items and a concert as well. He and Heather [Zimmerman’s wife] do a really good job of supporting the community.”

Learn more about the ziMS Foundation here.

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As If at Nationals Park

Every Friday home game, the best place to pre-game is at the Budweiser Terrace inside the ballpark. This week,  the Nats played the Mets and fans enjoyed cold Bud and Bud Light and great tunes from As If, the ultimate ’90s tribute band! Photos: Devin Overbey

Washington Nationals
Photos: Courtesy of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club

Nats Put Fans First

With all-star slugger Bryce Harper smashing game-winning home runs and ace pitcher Max Scherzer fanning batters left and right, the Washington Nationals roared into first place in the National League East to start the 2017 season, invigorating a fanbase that hopes to see the team hoist a World Series trophy later this year.

Nationals Park – almost always crackling with fan energy – is pulsing with renewed excitement this spring after a disappointing end to a 2016 season that saw the team make an early playoff exit. Strong play early in 2017 is putting plenty of fans back in the seats, and the team’s front office is working to make the ballpark experience better than ever.

“We’re constantly looking for ways to refresh the park and create new experiences for fans,” said Valerie Camillo, the Nationals chief revenue and marketing officer. “We have an 81-game season, so we like to refresh it not only between seasons, but even within a season.”

The Nationals have partnered with Major League Baseball to launch a customized phone app that allows fans to buy and manage their tickets, order concessions for quick pick-up during the game, and access all sorts of Nationals news, promotions and in-game activities. Fans can even share tickets with friends directly from the app on their phones, and upgrade their seats in
real-time.

Speaking of smart phones, the Nats’  front office says it recognizes that connectivity is important to its busy Washington area fanbase, which is why they nearly doubled the number of Wi-Fi access points throughout the ballpark. So don’t worry: if you must, you can still check and send those weeknight work emails easily from your seat.

As usual, the franchise is planning popular giveaways of player bobblehead dolls (Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner and Tanner Roark) several times throughout the season, as well as a snow globe featuring National League Cy Young winner Scherzer on May 24 and a Harper action figure on August 29. A Chewbacca koozie is on offer for Star Wars Day on May 27. The freebies don’t stop there. There Nats will also distribute a patriotic tank top on Flag Day, an Oktoberfest beer stein, a tote bag and even a fedora. Check the team’s website for exact dates.

Also, make sure you show up to the ballpark with an appetite. New food offerings for 2017 include a variety of chicken wings and tater tots in flavors that include Chesapeake Bay, steakhouse, BBQ and buffalo. Fans in the Norfolk Southern Club will have access to BBQ pulled pork and brisket sandwiches, and smoked baked potatoes. And keep an eye out for the new chicken fried steak and biscuits at the Virginia Country Kitchen concession stand, as well as Italian sausage burgers in the main concourse. One of last year’s new food favorites – Rye’s babka ice cream sandwich cart – is back with its fresh deli sandwiches, as well as those of the ice cream variety.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to get your drink on, too. In addition to plenty of Budweiser, Bud Light and other varieties of beer, the ballpark now features the Devils Backbone Left Field Lodge. The lodge is a Devils Backbone Brewing Company stand that includes picnic tables for fans to enjoy their brews and great views atop Nationals Park. If beer is not your thing, then look for the brand new mojito cart – Rum Runners – serving mojito cocktails throughout the season in the Center Field Plaza. Anheuser-Busch’s alcoholic seltzer water, SpikedSeltzer, comes in lime and grapefruit flavors.

Also new this season, the Nats are boasting the most stunning seats in all of professional baseball. The DC franchise has partnered with MGM National Harbor to launch the Dugout Club, featuring eight luxury leather recliners situated at field level right next to the Nats dugout. The sweet seats come with televisions, a private restroom, a personal attendant and a stocked refrigerator. But in order to score these tickets, you’ll need to go beyond the Nationals box office. They are not for sale to the general public, however.

“[They are] for customers of MGM’s [M Life rewards program], and they are determining who their best customers are and [who] will get to come on down,” Camillo said.

Meanwhile, on the field and in the clubhouse, Nats players and their manager, veteran Dusty Baker, are sounding confident in their chances this season. But they also know they have a bullseye on their backs after winning 95 games and their third NL East in five years last season. After a tough 4-2 loss to the Phillies in mid-April, Baker sounded philosophical about the long – and promising – season ahead.

“The whole season, every day is going to be a fight,” Baker told reporters after the loss. “Especially when you’re the incumbent division winner, teams are going to get up for you, and so it’s a matter for us to just keep fighting.”

“As the season goes on, we’ll get more and more adjusted, and as these guys get more at bats, we’ll be better and better.”

Learn more about the Nats’ 2017 season at www.mlb.com/nationals.

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Justin Trawick & The Common Good at Nats Park

Locals enjoyed a Friday pre-game concert at Nats Park on the Budweiser Terrace.  Fans sipped cold Bud and Bud Light and enjoyed tunes from the high energy “urban Americana” band Justin Trawick & The Common Good. Photos: Devin Overbey

Washington Valor Opening Day (2)

Washington Valor and Baltimore Brigade Season Opener

Football-crazed Washington sports fans got their first taste of the Washington Valor at Verizon Center on Friday night. Fans enjoyed high-octane touchdowns and bone-crunching hits as the Valor went on to win their season opener against the Baltimore Brigade. Photos: Michael Coleman

Nats vs. Red Sox (13)

Nats vs. Red Sox Naval Academy Exhibition Game

The Washington Nationals played the Boston Red Sox in an exhibition game at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The game finished tied at 4-4. Photos: Michael Coleman

Photos: Courtesy of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club
Photos: Courtesy of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club

DC’s Dugout at Full Strength: The Nats are Back in Action

The Washington Nationals have opened each of their past five baseball seasons brimming with roster talent, and 2017 is no different.

Most of the team’s marquee players – Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Jayson Werth, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman – are back in the lineup this season. The Nationals also return with their entire 2016 coaching staff intact. Pre-season prognosticators are predicting that the Nationals will once again be among the best teams in baseball. Speaking to reporters from the team’s new $150 million training facility in West Palm Beach this spring, Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said his team has plenty of promise, but must show consistency to achieve greatness.

“This team has been on an every-other-year program,” Baker told reporters. “The team has done well every other year; we would like to have consecutive years. It’s going to be tougher; the teams are more balanced in our division. We might have one of the toughest divisions in baseball. We have to stay healthy and stay together.”

But the Nationals manager also sounded bullish on his squad’s prospects, saying he believes it has the talent to win the first championship in the team’s 13-year history.

“Sometimes you’re fooling yourself, but I’m not fooling myself this time,” Baker said.

The Nationals’ first official test comes at 1:05 p.m. on April 3 during their home opener against the Miami Marlins. Stephen Strasburg – once the most promising young player in baseball – will be on the mound. Strasburg came out blazing last year with a spectacular 13-0 record, then suffered through injuries for the remainder of the season. The good news for Nats fans is that the oft-injured veteran hurler is fully healthy again in time for his fourth opening day start.

Nationals ace Max Scherzer, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, is nearly recovered from a finger ailment and is expected to start the third game of the season, also in Washington.

The Nationals have won the NL East three of the past five seasons, but they have routinely failed to advance in a playoff series. Players and coaches sounded optimistic through spring training that this will be the year the team drives deeper into the postseason. Harper has frequently stated his desire to win a World Series, and is confident that the 2017 Nats can get it done.

“We’ve got a group of guys who want to win,” Harper said at the outset of spring training.

Harper – already a four-time All-Star at just 24 years old – put up eye-popping numbers in 2015, hitting .330 with 42 home runs and a unanimous selection as league MVP. But the Las Vegas native struggled, at least compared to his own gaudy numbers, through much of 2016, hitting a disappointing .235 after May 1 of last year. Some reports suggested Harper was struggling with a shoulder injury and other ailments. Whatever the reasons for his lackluster campaign last year, Harper says he is healthy and looking to make the most of his final two seasons under contract in Washington. The bearded slugger even hinted at his hopes for a long-term deal with the Nationals.

“Being a Washington National – I love it,” Harper said. “I enjoy playing in the city of DC, and enjoy the organization so much. I’m going to play these next two years out and hopefully win, and do everything we can for the city of DC. Hopefully, we’ll bring a trophy back.”

Washington’s 95-67 record in 2016 was the second-best in the majors, behind only the eventual World Series Champion, the Chicago Cubs. The Nats’ fifth straight winning record in 2016 demonstrates that the team is getting closer to having the consistency that their veteran manager craves.

In the offseason, the Nationals stayed low-key and didn’t make many major moves, although they did trade their top pitching prospect, Lucas Giolito, to the White Sox to usher in the return of veteran Adam Eaton to Washington. The franchise is happy to see speedy center-fielder-turned-shortstop Trea Turner back in the lineup, and is also looking for more big numbers from slugger Daniel Murphy, who led the team in home runs last year with 25. Consistent hitter Anthony Rendon’s return to health is a relief for Nats brass, and the signing of catcher Matt Wieters in the offseason brings stability behind the plate.

Asked if the Nationals have enough firepower to bring a major league championship to the nation’s capital, Baker sounded optimistic in a March interview with the Washington Post. The city of Washington hasn’t won a World Series since 1924. One of the team’s marquee rivals – the Chicago Cubs – won its first championship in more than a century last year.

“We’ll win it here, too,” Baker told the Post. “We’ll end it here for the whole city. That’s my goal. Not just ending it (the championship drought) for the organization, but for the whole city.”

Learn more about the Nats’ 2017 season at www.washington.nationals.mlb.com.

Photos: Ned Dishman
Photos: Ned Dishman

The Washington Valor: DC’s Arena Football Team Makes Debut

Football-crazed Washington sports fans are in luck. We no longer have to wait until September to get our local fix of high-octane touchdowns and bone-crunching hits.

That’s because there’s a new arena league team in town – the Washington Valor. If you haven’t experienced arena football, get ready for fast and furious action, affordable tickets, and ample opportunities to talk football with Valor players and coaches.

The inaugural Valor team takes the field for its home opener at Verizon Center on April 7. Seats start at just $10. Former Washington Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss – a fan favorite who spent a decade with the team before retiring in 2015 – will provide color commentary for the Valor, owned by Ted Leonsis and his Monumental Sports Network.

“Arena football is a lot quicker,” said Everett Dawkins, a Valor player and former Florida State tackle now in his third season in the arena league. “Everything happens faster than in an NFL game. Everything is a little bit looser. It’s fun, it’s energizing and the fans love it.”

For the uninitiated, here are a few basics about the arena game compared to the traditional American version of the sport.

The arena league field size, at 50 yards long, is smaller and narrower than the traditional 100-yard field. The team plays a 14-game schedule compared with the NFL’s 16-game schedule. The rosters are also scaled down. Arena league teams dress just 21 players on game day compared to 53 players who suit up for NFL teams. And while college and NFL teams field 11 players on offense and defense, arena teams have just eight players on each side.

“It’s eight guys on offense, eight on defense, a backup quarterback and a kicker,” Valor Head Coach Dean Cokinos told On Tap. “You don’t have a lot of depth, and a lot of guys have to play multiple positions.”

One other big difference: the arena field is surrounded by netting, and the ball stays live if an errant throw or kick bounces off. This wildcard factor sparks some of the arena league’s most thrilling plays.

“If the ball hits the net or the wall up in the air, it’s live and you can play it – intercept it off the net or recover a kickoff off the net,” Cokinos explained. “The nets are really a huge part of our game.”

Cokinos also said the arena league puts a major emphasis on regular interaction between players and coaches and ticketholders.

“Our game is very fan-friendly,” he said. “The fans have great access to our players and to the coaches before the game, and after the game you can come down on the field and you’re out there with the players and coaches. We’re required to come back out after our locker room meeting after the game and spend 20 minutes on the field signing autographs and talking with the fans. There’s a lot of interaction.”

While the very best college football players typically end up in the NFL, the arena league boasts plenty of formidable talent.

“Most of our guys have played in the NFL or CFL [Canadian Football League], or on those practice squads, or went to pro camp,” Cokinos said. “They’re pro-level players, but they don’t have the same name recognition.”

Well, actually some of them do – or at least did. Kurt Warner, who won a Super Bowl as quarterback for the St. Louis Rams, got his pro start in the arena league. And let’s not forget that Washington Redskins Head Coach Jay Gruden was among the most prolific players in Arena Football League history, winning four league titles as quarterback of the Tampa Bay Storm before becoming an NFL coach.

Washington-area Valor fans may recognize players on the field at Verizon Center right away because some of them hail from the area. Among them is Tracy Belton, the 2016 Arena Football Defensive Player of the Year, who has signed with the team. Belton, a former Largo High School (in Largo, Md.) star before playing college football at the University of Massachusetts, is now a six-year arena league veteran who led the league in interceptions last year.

Belton, acquired by the Valor from the Philadelphia Jazz in the off-season, told On Tap he’s thrilled to be home.

“I’m very excited to play in my hometown,” Belton said, adding that it will be extra motivating knowing that his friends and family will be in the stands.

“People are going to have a great time,” Belton said. “The family and kids have never witnessed anything like this. You’re going to enjoy the game, and you will be back. It’s in the Verizon Center, so you know it’s gonna be poppin’ in there!”

Learn more about the Washington Valor’s first season at www.washingtonvalor.com.