Nationals

Clemson seeking strong finish unlike last year

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Clemson seeking strong finish unlike last year

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson coach Dabo Swinney thinks the 10th-ranked Tigers have grown since their late-season collapse of last fall and have the experience to avoid a similar slide this season.

``Consistency is something this program has lacked,'' Swinney said Tuesday. ``That's the next thing we've got to do.''

The quest starts Saturday when the Tigers (7-1, 4-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) travel to Duke (6-3, 2-2). Clemson appeared ready to break through a year ago when it stood 8-0 and ranked No. 6 in the country. The Tigers were in the thick of BCS title talk because of a record-setting offense that looked unstoppable.

Then things fell apart.

Clemson lost three of its final four games in the regular season. While the team rebounded to win the ACC crown, Clemson was demolished in prime time in an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.

Clemson's already handled several obstacles it hasn't in the past since its lone loss, a 49-37 defeat at No. 9 Florida State, to get itself back in the top 10. Swinney said the players have learned from last year's problems and look forward to continuing their strong play.

``I just think the experience they've had is going to pay off for them,'' Swinney said. ``That's usually the case.''

Tigers center Dalton Freeman said Clemson went nine games without a break last year and bumps and bruises began to take a toll. There were also several underclassmen at key positions, he said, like quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins whose production tailed off and mistakes increased as the season wore on.

``They hadn't been through it before and I don't know if they were mentally ready'' for the stretch run, Freeman said.

Freeman says those players haven't forgotten what they went through and are focused on building on their four-game win streak.

For Boyd, this is a chance to prove he won't have a drop off in production the way he did last fall. Boyd had passed for 24 touchdowns and three interceptions in Clemson's perfect start. He had four touchdowns and seven interceptions the final four games.

Boyd said he's a much more mature player this season and doesn't spend much time thinking about what went wrong for him last fall.

``It's a growth in the leadership role and having these guys look up to me in any situation whether we're down or up,'' he said. ``So my job is to stay calm, stay poised and let the game come to me.''

Boyd's done that this season. He leads the league with more than 326 yards of total offense per game. He also tops the ACC with 20 TD passes against six interceptions.

Boyd threw for a record 428 yards in Clemson's 42-13 victory over Wake Forest on Oct. 25. He tied his own school record with five touchdown passes to five different receivers - a fact Boyd's especially proud of.

``I think that's when we're at our best,'' he says, ``when everyone touches the ball.''

Clemson got a major boost against Wake Forest from Watkins, an All-American who had struggled to match his freshman production as a sophomore. Watkins had eight catches for a school record 202 yards and his first receiving touchdown of the year.

Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris believes Watkins is rounding into form at exactly the right time to keep the Tigers rolling.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe said the Blue Devils will have their hands full trying to slow down the Tigers.

``Clemson is an ACC championship team,'' he said. ``They've got players that have performed at that level and continue to perform at that level.''

Duke is Clemson's last road game and the Tigers finish ACC play at Death Valley against Maryland and North Carolina, who are combined 2-3 in conference play so far.

Clemson closes the season at home against rival South Carolina, which lost star rusher Marcus Lattimore to a season-ending knee injury last week. The Tigers still need help in another Florida State loss to win the Atlantic Division and defend their ACC title. A perfect November might also bring Clemson a second straight BCS bowl, Swinney said.

``We are pretty high (in the rankings) right now with a loss,'' Swinney said. ``We are about where we should be. If we can finish strong, we'll have every opportunity that's out there.''

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AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard contributed to this report from Durham, N.C.

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This time, closer Sean Doolittle costs the Nationals a game

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This time, closer Sean Doolittle costs the Nationals a game

NEW YORK -- The Washington Nationals lost to the New York Mets, 6-1, Wednesday to drop their record to 19-30. Here are five observations from the game...

1.  What to say when the only person to trust can’t deliver?

That’s the status for these Washington Nationals, now 11 games under .500 after Sean Doolittle's worst outing since arriving in Washington, sliding further and further away, unable to stumble into wins and only capable of hunting down ways to lose.

A night after curious bullpen usage which delivered yet another wrenching loss, and was followed Wednesday afternoon by a pep-talk focused team meeting, manager Davey Martinez dispatched his knee-quaking posse of relievers in superior fashion.

Joe Ross opened the seventh with an out. Matt Grace followed with two. Six outs to go in a 1-0 game for the league’s worst bullpen.

Kyle Barraclough started the eighth. He struck out J.D. Davis. Adeiny Hechavarria doubled, though the ball should have been caught by Juan Soto. Pete Alonso grounded out. Todd Frazier came to the plate and options arrived. A mound visit was followed by a four-pitch walk to Frazier. Doolittle entered the game to face light-hitting veteran Carlos Gomez. Stomach-churning chaos followed.

Doolittle hit Gomez with his first pitch -- his first beaned batter of the year and first since May 29, 2018. Juan Lagares doubled two pitches later to clear the bases. Wilson Ramos was intentionally walked. Pinch-hitter Rajai Davis hit a three-run homer two pitches into his at-bat.

That was the end for Doolittle, who walked off the mound with a stunned look. The one reliable piece in the league’s worst bullpen had as disastrous a night as possible, flushing Max Scherzer’s start, throwing aside rare quality work from other relievers, sending the Nationals to their fourth consecutive loss in this can’t-get-right season.

What followed was a stupefied clubhouse beginning to process just how dire the situation is on May 22.

Adam Eaton wondered where answers are and said they need to come now.

“We need to do something different sooner rather than later,” Eaton said. “We've talked about this for weeks now. Just haven't been playing good baseball.”

Martinez said he was “shocked” by Doolittle’s off-kilter outing.

“I tell them all the time: This thing will turn around,” Martinez said. “It’s going to turn around. But we have to believe that it will. We have to will it. It’s time that we just believe that we’re good enough to play here, cause we are. And we’ve got to make it happen. We’ve got to make things happen. And stay strong. Stay together. Stay strong. Pull for your teammates. And this thing will turn around.”

Doolittle had a hard time wrapping his head around his rare 12-pitch crumbling.

“I don't know, it's tough and it's a tough spot to come in and the context of how our season's going it hurts you even more,” Doolittle said. “To have Max pitch so well tonight and the guys grind it out....shoot I don't know. I'm really frustrated. I'm disgusted with myself and I let the team down. And it hurts.”

Scherzer was stern in his comments about a spiraling season.

“When you face adversity, this is when you reveal yourself,” Scherzer said. “Whether you have the mental fortitude to come back and you can block out all the negativity that's probably going to surround us right now. You've got to come forward to the game with that positive attitude of knowing what you can control and that you have the right mindset that you're going to go out there and compete and compete at 100 percent. You have to think of all the little things you can do.”

There were those two words again: “little things.” They have conspired against the Nationals this year, undermining an-almost $200 million payroll, increasingly putting the manager’s future in jeopardy and ratcheting up calls for sweeping change. There’s been nothing little about them, and nothing the Nationals have figured out on the field or off to stop them from snuffing out the year before the season is even close to half done.

2. Scherzer needed 109 pitches to make it through six innings. The most important of those was his final one. The 11-pitch sixth gave the Nationals three fewer outs to pawn off on the bullpen. Scherzer opened the inning at 98 pitches before briskly working through Todd Frazier, Carlos Gomez and Juan Lagares.

He allowed four hits, struck out nine and walked two. The night drove Scherzer’s ERA down to 3.41. It all mattered little in the end.

“You just take it inning by inning, try to execute pitches,” Scherzer said. “I thought tonight I had a good inning out of the windup, had a good rocker step, and there were some pitches that I threw tonight that I executed well because I was nice and tall throughout my delivery. It kind of let me be able to pick up some consistency kind of early in the game and late in the game. When my delivery is right, and my slot is in the right spot, that’s when I execute all my pitches. So I felt like I was in better position tonight overall than I have been in the past.”

Why was Scherzer back to the mound after 98 pitches in five innings? Because of losses six weeks ago, three weeks ago, last week and this week. A team 10 games under .500 has to squeeze everything it can out of its ace on May 22. Time for a margin of error has eroded. What happened back then (losing series to Miami, for instance) piles up to have a grand influence on later.

3. Grace has been used as a matchup left-hander recently. He’s found that life more appealing.

Grace matched up with Cubs left-hander Anthony Rizzo and recorded an out Sunday. He faced Robinson Cano on Tuesday to pick up a ground out. Wednesday, Grace was brought in to face left-handed pinch-hitter Dominic Smith. Smith grounded out to first. Grace remained in to face Amed Rosario and recorded another ground ball out.

The Nationals are trying to put Grace in spots to get his feet back on the ground after a night as the punching bag at the end of a blowout loss against the Chicago Cubs last Friday (and a down season overall). So far, this role has been better.

4. Remember the extended minor-league assignments for after players were hurt? That’s gone. And the results are not great.

Matt Adams was activated Wednesday. Adrian Sanchez was sent to Double-A Harrisburg to make room on the 25-man roster.

Adams did all his rehabilitation work with the major-league team. He took batting practice on the field and in the batting cages before that. He also took ground balls and infield practice. What he didn’t do was go on a minor-league assignment despite not playing since May 3. The Nationals judged him ready to play because his swing looked in place against a pitching machine.

Wednesday, he made a crucial error in the first inning. Robinson Cano rolled a small ground ball to first, Adams fielded, pivoted and threw toward second base, where the runner on first was heading. The ball never came close to the bag. It went to the outfield instead, which presented the Mets with runners on second and third and one out instead of a runner on first and one out (or a chance at a longshot double play). It, most importantly, cost Scherzer more pitches.

Scherzer pitched his way out of it as he often has this season. He came into the game leading the league in FIP (fielding-independent pitching).

Trea Turner played just two games for Triple-A Potomac after missing seven weeks. Asked how many games he would have preferred to play there, Turner said one. He made two wayward throws his first game back with the Nationals.

So, instantly putting these guys back on the field -- which is every player’s preference and a spot the Nationals’ record has leveraged them into -- is not ideal.

5.  Kyle McGowin will start Friday. His visit to the rotation is expected to be temporary.

McGowin will pitch in Jeremy Hellickson’s spot. He was up to give length in the bullpen. Like Erick Fedde, he’ll be drawn away from the relievers to fill a rotation spot.

McGowin is a sinker-ball pitcher. He made one start at the end of last season. He also is currently suspended by the Pacific Coast League after a substance was found in his glove following an inspection by umpires during his last outing.

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Redskins sign linebacker Jon Bostic to try and help make up for the loss of Reuben Foster

Redskins sign linebacker Jon Bostic to try and help make up for the loss of Reuben Foster

Two days after losing Reuben Foster for the year, the Redskins made a move to at least provide reinforcements to a weakened linebacker group.

On Wednesday, Washington announced that they have signed Jon Bostic, a six-year veteran. The 'Skins also officially placed Foster on injured reserve.

Bostic was a 2013 second-round pick of the Bears out of Florida. He's since bounced around to New England, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh, where he started 14 times for the Steelers in 2018 and posted 73 tackles. He's been traded twice in his career and missed all of 2016 with a foot injury. 

So, what does the move accomplish for the Redskins?

Well, Bostic — or any other free agent signing at this point — isn't going to have close to the level of talent and potential that Foster had. However, getting another option at linebacker was necessary for the Burgundy and Gold, and the 28-year-old has played in 30 contests over the past two years, so he's relatively established. 

Yes, he's far from a gamechanger, considering he has just one interception and 5.5 sacks as a pro. But he's regarded as a solid run defender and tackler and should at least push Mason Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton. His presence also could alleviate some of the pressure that would've been on rookie Cole Holcomb. 

Signing a defender who's been with five franchises in six years isn't exactly inspiring, but Bostic has experience as a starter and could give the Redskins useful snaps on first and second down at a minimum. Now it's on him to take advantage of the opportunity he's been given.

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