Arkansas looks to carry confidence into Ole Miss

Arkansas looks to carry confidence into Ole Miss

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) Arkansas coach John L. Smith has seen a change in the mood around the Razorbacks over the last few weeks.

A two-game winning streak will do that when it comes on the heels of a hope-crushing, four-game losing streak that sent the Razorbacks from the preseason Top 10 to a Southeastern Conference afterthought.

``I don't notice a sense of relief,'' Smith said. ``It's more like a sense of, `We're back (to) where we think we should have been.'''

Arkansas (3-4, 2-2) might have been forgotten by some following its early season collapse, but it's out to show that it's far from gone. The Razorbacks have put together back-to-back wins over Auburn and Kentucky, and they host Mississippi (4-3, 1-2) this weekend in Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium - with a chance to climb back to .500.

The mark is a small step on the path that Arkansas hopes eventually leads to a fourth straight bowl game.

To reach a bowl, any bowl, Arkansas must win three of its final five games against teams that are combined 31-7. It's no easy task, but the Razorbacks are eager to show they are more like the team that was 21-5 the last two seasons than the one that lost to Louisiana-Monroe.

``We were very highly touted team coming into the season and we had a little slump in the beginning,'' Arkansas center Travis Swanson said. ``Hopefully, I think we've figured out what we need to figure out to fix that slump. I know we just want to show everyone that we are the team who we said we were going to be.''

The Razorbacks, who had a bye last weekend, looked every bit like their former selves their last time out. They jumped out to a 42-0 halftime lead over Kentucky before settling for a 49-7 win in a game that was called midway through the third quarter because of inclement weather.

Most important, Arkansas - which is tied for the SEC's worst turnover margin with a minus 10 - didn't commit a turnover.

Quarterback Tyler Wilson threw for 372 yards and a career-high five touchdowns in that win. Wilson's performance was another sign that last season's first-team All-SEC signal caller has recovered from an early season concussion that forced him to miss a game and a half - including the second half of the loss to Louisiana-Monroe and a 52-0 drubbing by No. 1 Alabama.

With a host of Razorbacks still out for the season with injuries, including the team's top two defensive players in Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright, Wilson will be counted on to match his Kentucky performance against Ole Miss. The Rebels, who also had a bye last week, defeated Auburn 41-20 their last time out and have shown improvement in their first season under coach Hugh Freeze.

Freeze, who coached last season at Arkansas State, is aware of Arkansas' preseason hype and he expects the Razorbacks' rejuvenated ways to continue this weekend.

``There's certainly no argument Tyler Wilson will be one of the two or three first quarterbacks taken (in the NFL draft),'' Freeze said. ``They've got great talent, and now they're taking care of the ball and their defense is playing quite a bit better.''

Smith said he's seen a renewed confidence throughout the Razorbacks since they snapped the losing streak. The interim coach said Arkansas is gaining confidence daily, a far cry from the disappointment earlier in the season.

``There's nothing like getting your juices flowing, knowing that you can be more confident now that you've got a few wins behind you,'' Arkansas defensive tackle Alfred Davis said. ``I think they guys understand that we're in a great position right now, coming off two big wins in the SEC, and I think it will carry over.''


AP Sports Writer David Brandt in Oxford, Miss., contributed to this report.

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The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

The Lightning are matching their 4th line against Ovechkin...and it’s working

When the starting lines were announced on Saturday, you may have been surprised to hear Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tom Wilson were starting against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan.

Because the game was in Tampa Bay, the Capitals had to give their starters first. That means Lightning coach Jon Cooper saw the Caps’ were starting their top line and decided to put out his fourth.

And it worked.

On Saturday, Paquette scored just 19 seconds into the game and Callahan scored 33 seconds into the second period. Ovechkin’s line did not manage a shot on goal for the first two periods of the game. Ovechkin did finally score, but it came late on a six-on-five with Braden Holtby pulled and it was not against the fourth line.

The fourth vs. Ovechkin matchup is something the Lightning began in Game 2. No three forwards have played more against Ovechkin at five on five in any game since Game 2 than Kunitz, Paquette and Callahan. Prior to Game 5, they matched up against Ovechkin around six to seven minutes per game. On Saturday, however, Cooper went all in.

At five on five play, Kunitz was on the ice against Ovechkin for 13:04, Paquette for 13:42 and Callahan for 13:46. The results speak for themselves as that line outscored Ovechkin's 2-0. In fact, for the series Ovechkin has produced six points and only two of them have come at five-on-five play.

A fourth line vs. a top line matchup is a risky move because it takes time away from your top offensive playmakers. You typically see top lines face each other or a first line against a second line because, when you line match you are letting the opposing coach dictate how much your own players play. With a fourth line matchup getting essentially top line minutes, that takes time away from players like Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

If you look at the five-on-five time on ice for Game 5, Kucherov skated 14:06 and Stamkos 13:37 while Kunitz was on for 14:00, Callahan for 14:45 and Paquette for 14:57.

It is a risky move, but it makes sense for the Lightning. Through four games, the Capitals were the better team five-on-five, but Tampa Bay’s power play was unstoppable. Using the fourth line is a good strategy for Cooper in situations like in Game 3 and Game 4. The Lightning slowed Washington’s five-on-five production and Stamkos and Kucherov still produced enough on the power play even with reduced minutes. It also works for games like the one we saw Saturday.

In a game like Game 5 when your team jumps out to a 3-0 lead, you can afford to roll your lines even if it means giving the fourth line more minutes than the first.

You would think a fourth vs. first matchup would give the Capitals a distinct advantage, but it has not worked out that way. The fourth line has been able to stifle Ovechkin and Co. enough and the Lightning's power play has made up the production lost by the first line's reduced minutes. When the fourth line can score two goals of its own, well, that's just an added bonus.

Ovechkin has to lead his line to a better performance in Game 6. If the Caps’ top line can’t get the better of the Lightning’s fourth, then this series will be over on Monday night.


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Mike Rizzo makes bold move to call up Juan Soto

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Mike Rizzo makes bold move to call up Juan Soto

This is not a tweet I expected to read in May of 2018.

On the heels of their latest injury, the team is adding uber-prospect Juan Soto to the roster. It's unclear how much playing time he'll receive early on, but it's hard to imagine the team would be willing to start his service time clock and mess with his development track simply to sit him on the bench. He'll likely play, and make an impact on the team for as long as he's in D.C.

Let's not bury the lede, though. As you probably noticed in the tweet, Juan Soto is 19-years old. He was born in October of 1998, making him the youngest player in the majors, and bringing us one step closer to the first big-leaguer born in the 2000s. 

As incredible as it is for Soto to make the majors as a teenager (Bryce Harper and Time Raines are the only other teenagers to play in the majors in franchise history, which is pretty good company), what might be even more stunning is how quickly this came together for him. 

This will already be Soto's fourth different level of professional baseball this season alone, having spent time with the low-A, high-A, and AA clubs so far. In his entire life, Soto has just 35 plate appearances above class-A, which is almost unheard of for a player getting promoted to the big league roster.

He's hit everywhere he's been, with his career OPS in the minors a whopping 1.043 (his lowest  wRC+ at any level is 132), though it remains to be seen if his prodigious bat is ready for Major League pitching. Still, simply being in the majors at such a young age is a great sign for his future.

Not that anybody should put Hall of Fame expectations on a kid who hasn't even faced a pitch in the majors yet, but Soto's meteoric rise gives him a better chance than most at greatness. Just last month, when discussing the dynamic Braves duo of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, Hall of Fame-expert Jay Jaffe did some research on young stars making the big leagues, and the numbers are promising.

According to Baseball Reference (and we're just going to take their word for it), there have been 19,261 players in the history of Major League Baseball, and 226 of them have been elected to the Hall of Fame. That's a minuscule 1.1%.

But, of every player to ever record 100 plate appearances as a 19-year old (a number Soto should easily hit if he stays up all season), the number of players who eventually made the Hall of Fame jumps to 24%. If Soto is only up for a cup of coffee this year, and next year is when he's here to stay, you can move up the list to players who recorded 100 PA in their age-20 seasons, and the number is still 19%.

Plus, that percentage is likely to increase in the coming decades, as there are 18 active players to reach the benchmark, including future locks Adrian Beltre, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Trout, and guys who are young but on the right track (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Carlos Correa, and Giancarlo Stanton). Acuna, Albies, and Rafael Devers could find their way on the list one day as well. Considering only three of those names need to be enshrined in Cooperstown one day, it's safe to say that percentage is only growing.

That's a lot of stats that look nice for Soto and the Nationals, but obviously, we're at least a decade away from having a legitimate conversation about his Hall of Fame chances. Still, it highlights what we've known about him for quite some time. Juan Soto is a special, generational talent, and his rise to the big leagues as a teenager is worth writing home about.

What he's done so far is historic, and even if the move seems premature, it's plenty cause for excitement about the future of baseball in D.C.


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