Nationals

Arkansas eyes role of spoiler against No. 8 LSU

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Arkansas eyes role of spoiler against No. 8 LSU

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson would love nothing more than to play the role of spoiler this week.

Any hopes of a bowl game ended in a loss at Mississippi State last week for the Razorbacks (4-7, 2-5 Southeastern Conference), who began the season ranked in the top 10.

What began with national championship dreams, even following former coach Bobby Petrino's firing in April, will come to a certain end when Arkansas hosts No. 8 LSU (9-2, 5-2) on Friday. How things play out after that for the Razorbacks, including the identity of their new coach, is unknown.

The Tigers still have expectations of a BCS bowl game - and are clinging to hopes of re-entering the SEC and national championship pictures.

``This is it,'' Wilson said. ``... So, why not go out there and light it up one more time? That's how I'm looking at it.''

Wilson wasn't the only one to let his guard down this week.

Interim coach John L. Smith, whose return after taking over for the scandal-ridden Petrino is unlikely, fought back tears while looking back at the Razorbacks' disappointing season. Arkansas began the season ranked in the top 10 before an early season loss to Louisiana-Monroe sent it tumbling from the polls and began a four-game losing streak from which the Razorbacks never recovered.

Smith, whose open personality was welcomed upon his return in April, took criticism for his same upbeat nature once the losses began to pile up. His coaching fate now lies in the hands of Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long following Friday's game.

``We're sorry again we couldn't have maybe done more,'' Smith said.

While the Razorbacks' postseason is expected to be filled with transition to a new coaching staff, LSU is hopeful of a return to a BCS bowl game and possibly more.

The Tigers appeared out of the SEC and national championship pictures following a Nov. 3 loss to Alabama, but they are currently the highest-ranked, two-loss team and could potentially player their way back into next weekend's conference title game. Of course, that's only possible if Auburn shocks the No. 2 Crimson Tide this weekend - and LSU wins.

``We don't control our own destiny,'' LSU safety Eric Reid said. ``But winning 10 games and going to a BCS bowl is exactly our motivation. Our season is not over. We have to finish the season strong. We want to get a win over Arkansas and see what bowl game we can get.''

The Tigers hope the rebirth of their once-anemic passing game continues on Friday against the Razorbacks, who are 115th in the country in allowing 292.1 yards passing per game. LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger struggled in the starting role earlier this season, but he's averaged 284.3 yards passing over his last three games.

A win would also give the Tigers double-digit wins for the sixth time in eight years under coach Les Miles, who is well aware of the difficulty of playing against Wilson and Arkansas - which has won three of its last five games against LSU.

``When you watch their film, you can see why they were ranked in the top 10 to start the season, and they're still there,'' Miles said. ``The quality players have played hard. John L. Smith (is) in a tough position in this last game, but I'm sure that he'll be ready, and I'm sure that this Arkansas team will play inspired.''

Injuries and fallout from the transition from Petrino - who was fired for hiring his mistress to a position in the athletic department and initially lying about her presence during an April 1 motorcycle accident - were too much for Arkansas to overcome this season.

Still, Smith pleaded for fans to support the Razorbacks this week when they host LSU in Fayetteville for the first time since 1992, the school's first season in the SEC. Arkansas' home game with the Tigers has been played in its home away from home in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium since, and it's been the sight of several memorable last-second finishes between the rivals.

One of those dramatic games was a 31-30 Arkansas win in 2008, a game that gave the Razorbacks a 5-7 record in their first season under Petrino. The game was a springboard to future success for Arkansas, which was 21-5 the last two seasons and won the Cotton Bowl over Kansas State last season.

Wilson's senior class was a part of much of the success. And given the circumstances of the season, he couldn't think of a better way to close out his career.

``Little Rock's great, and it's been tradition to be there, for sure,'' Wilson said. ``But, not being able to go to a bowl game at this point, to wrap up my career here in Fayetteville is the perfect ending.''

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Nationals win despite having to turn to little-known pitcher for pivotal start

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USA Today Sports Images

Nationals win despite having to turn to little-known pitcher for pivotal start

WASHINGTON -- If any bump was coming from a return home or Mike Rizzo’s public pregame words or simply being out of New York, it was not apparent Friday.

Three errors committed in the first four innings. The first reliever into the game, Joe Ross, allowed three earned runs before recording a second out. Starter Kyle McGowin barely made it through the fourth inning of an eventual and desperately needed 12-10 win.

The rally kept the Nationals from creeping toward of new level of dubiousness in this muck-filled season. They pushed 2 ½ games in front of the Marlins for the National League’s worst record. Juan Soto hit a three-run homer in the eighth. Matt Adams followed with a solo homer. Sean Doolittle had trouble, but closed the game. Those efforts kept this from being another story about the bullpen (five more runs allowed Friday).

So, here’s a different question to ponder (there are a million or none, depending on point of view) after Friday night: How did the Nationals end up with 27-year-old McGowin starting a surprisingly pivotal game?

The nuts-and-bolts version is because of injuries. Both Anibal Sanchez -- who threw a simulation game Friday -- and Jeremy Hellickson are on the injured list. The deeper answer comes from looking at the recent erosion of pitchers in Washington’s minor-league system.

McGowin made his second career start Friday because there is no one else. No hot minor-league prospect, no early-round pick who has been up and down and received another shot, no veteran stashed in the minor leagues for such situations.

Looming behind all of this is the 2016 trade of three pitching prospects to acquire Adam Eaton. Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning were all sent to Chicago for Eaton’s advanced-stats and cost-friendly contract. The departure of three starting pitchers in one shot reverberated Friday when the Nationals were forced to use McGowin in a spot start as the seventh starter of the season.

This is more a volume than quality issue. Neither Lopez or Giolito were effective in limited chances at the major-league level with Washington before being traded. Once in Chicago, Giolito became arguably the worst pitcher in baseball in 2018. No one allowed more earned runs or walks that season. Lopez had a quality season, finishing with 3.1 WAR.

The two have reversed outcomes in 2019. Giolito has rediscovered his velocity. After throwing 100 mph in the 2015 Futures Game, his velocity caved. Giolito was down to 92-93 mph with the Nationals and, initially, Chicago. Thursday, he hit 97 mph in the ninth inning of a shutout against Houston. The outing drove his ERA down to 2.77.

Lopez is struggling. His 5.14 ERA is venturing toward Giolito’s status of a year ago. His walk total -- always the concern -- is up, as are his homers allowed.

But what Giolito and Lopez have, at age 24 and 25, respectively, is potential. Giolito, who often fussed with his mechanics in Washington, has discovered a delivery to expedite his fastball and an approach to boost the effectiveness of his changeup. Lopez’s 2018 showed he can be a solid back-end rotation member. They were expected to follow behind Erick Fedde and Joe Ross in establishing a future rotation. But, those two are in Chicago, Ross is in the bullpen, where he gave up three runs Friday, and Fedde just returned to the rotation after being moved to the bullpen.

So, it was McGowin on the mound Friday. Four innings, six hits, five runs, one walk, two strikeouts, two home runs allowed. Why? No better choice is available.

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Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic and Nationals grant boys wish to be a player for a day

Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic and Nationals grant boys wish to be a player for a day

The Nationals welcomed 10-year-old cancer patient Parker Staples as the newest addition to their team on Friday, in conjunction with the Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic Foundation.

While battling lymphoma, Staples learned he would receive a wish and didn’t hesitate about what he wanted to choose. After being sidelined for two years during treatment, Parker couldn’t wait to celebrate his remission by becoming part of his favorite baseball team. 

Staples was introduced to his new teammates and got signed autographs from Matt Adams, Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, and Yan Gomes. He also got to spend time hitting and playing catch with his new teammates, as well as being interviewed as the newest member of the team. It gets even better than that, Staples threw the ceremonial first pitch at Nationals Park leading up to the Marlins-Nationals game Staples 

"My favorite moment was throwing the first pitch. It was really cool," Staples said.

"Probably the biggest day of my life."

The Nationals are hosted the Miami Marlins in the series opener Friday.

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