Nationals

Clippers look to build on start of something good

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Clippers look to build on start of something good

LOS ANGELES (AP) Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the rest of the Los Angeles Clippers are embracing increased expectations this season, another sign of a deep cultural shift in an organization that hasn't experienced back-to-back playoff berths in nearly 20 years.

The optimism is due in part to last season's success and the attitude of veterans Paul and Chauncey Billups, who have instilled a drive and a belief that was often lacking during the years when the Clippers were the laughingstock of the NBA.

Now they've assembled a deep roster of veterans to surround All-Stars Paul and Griffin, who are expected to play key roles in the team's success.

``We're up there with anybody,'' Griffin said. ``We can play with anybody. With our talent and depth, we can go toe-to-toe with whoever it is.''

The Clippers open the season at home on Oct. 31 against Memphis. Nine of their first 15 games are at Staples Center, including one against the Lakers on Nov. 2, which should offer an early gauge of where the Clippers stand.

Injuries, however, are already a factor, making it a challenge for third-year coach Vinny Del Negro to build cohesion.

Paul is still getting acclimated to playing with a small splint on his surgically repaired right thumb that will remain on until he's given the go-ahead to remove it. Billups continues recovering from surgery to repair a torn left Achilles tendon, and isn't expected back until sometime in November.

Paul and Billups played 15 games as the Clippers' backcourt duo last season, helping the team to key wins over the Heat, Lakers, Nuggets, Jazz, Grizzlies and Magic. The Clippers were 11-4 when both of them started.

``The depth we have now gives me a little sense of relief to take my time,'' said Billups, who recently turned 36.

Reserves Lamar Odom and Grant Hill, both added in the offseason, have been limited by bone bruises in their knees. Odom and new addition Jamal Crawford give the Clippers two former Sixth Man of the Year winners off the bench.

``Usually there's a lot of young guys,'' Paul said. ``I'm excited about having guys that just know how to play, that are battle-tested and understand the process of a season.''

Crawford chose the Clippers over the likes of Minnesota and Philadelphia after being lured by phone calls from Paul and Griffin.

``Everybody is so close, and when you care about somebody off the court you'll run through a wall for them,'' he said.

Ronny Turiaf is excited to be back in Los Angeles, where he once came off the Lakers' bench.

``Everybody wants to rally around Clipper Nation,'' he said. ``Everywhere I walk in LA I feel this unbelievable love from the fans that gives me a boost of energy.''

Griffin is fully recovered from left knee surgery in July, and spent time during the summer working with a shooting coach, who also helped DeAndre Jordan. It appears to be paying off, with Jordan producing double-double efforts in preseason games.

``We're going to have a really good year,'' Jordan said.

Last season, the Clippers were 40-26, including 24-9 at home, where they averaged a franchise-best 19,219 fans and had 33 sellouts. It was their first winning record since 2005-06, and their first playoff appearance since then. They beat Memphis in seven games in the first round, and then got swept by San Antonio in the Western Conference semifinals.

Now they're seeking a return trip to the playoffs for the first time in consecutive years since 1991-92 and 1992-93.

``It's much better having the expectations high,'' Del Negro said.

During the summer, Paul exercised his player option for this season while Griffin signed a five-year contract extension worth up to $95 million.

In addition to Odom, Crawford, and Hill, the Clippers added veterans Matt Barnes, Ryan Hollins and Turiaf. Odom, Barnes and Turiaf are former Lakers, while Odom and Barnes are back for their second stints with the Clippers.

``We could bring five guys off of our bench that could be starters,'' Paul said. ``That's what you see with the teams that advance and go deep into the playoffs, their bench is usually deep. Not every night is Blake going to be able to score 29 points. The bench is something that you count on for the long season.''

Shooting guard Willie Green is one of seven new players on the roster, but he played with Paul in New Orleans two years ago and they are good friends.

``When you really have that team chemistry and that team camaraderie, it really makes you fight harder,'' Paul said.

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Past Nationals relievers: Where are they now?

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Past Nationals relievers: Where are they now?

It’s no secret that the Nationals bullpen is one of the weakest units in baseball this season. Fans in the nation’s capital have spent two months watching relievers cough up leads and put games out of reach, and the numbers speak for themselves. 

Washington’s team ERA among relievers is an unsightly 7.09 entering Memorial Day Weekend, nearly a full run higher than the 29th-ranked Orioles. As a unit, they’ve pitched fewer innings than any other bullpen, yet have allowed the second-most earned runs.

No one has been immune. Sean Doolittle, by far the best option in 2019, has seen his ERA balloon to 3.68. Justin Miller is the only other regular reliever with an ERA below 5, and he’s at 4.02.

It’s caused much consternation in the fanbase, and for good reason. Where did the Nationals go wrong in building this bullpen? What could they have done differently?

To answer that question, let’s take a look at four relievers who are experiencing various levels of success while no longer in Washington.

Felipe Vazquez

Vazquez has been lights out in Pittsburgh in 2019. He ranks top-10 among relievers in WAR (0.9) and top-12 in ERA (1.25). He holds the sixth-best K/9 (14.54) and is tied for the fourth-most saves in baseball with 13.

Every one of those numbers would lead the Nationals with ease. At 27, Vazquez has turned into one of the elite relievers in the sport. He’s been terrific all three years with the Pirates, and 2019 looks like his best season yet.

Of course, he wasn’t ready to be this guy in 2016 when the Nationals traded him for Mark Melancon. It was a necessary trade at the time, and one that worked out well in a vacuum. Melancon pitched well in Washington and didn’t allow a run in the 2016 postseason.

Right now, the Nats could really use a Felipe Vazquez, but the logic behind their trade at the time was sound.

Blake Treinen

Treinen has already allowed as many earned runs in 2019 (seven) as he did in all of 2018. It’s not a knock on his performance this season, where his 2.59 ERA would still lead the Nationals, but a recognition of just how dominant he was in 2018.

In the modern era of Major League Baseball, it’s just about impossible for a reliever to win the Cy Young. Even with just 80 innings pitched last year, Treinen finished sixth in Cy Young voting and 15th in MVP voting. 

That’s right. He was so good, he got down-ballot votes for MVP. It was a sensational year.

His usually-elite ground ball rate is down this season, which has led to some regression, but it’s still notable he put together a 2018 season that far outshines any individual season the Nats have seen.

It was clear in 2017 he wasn’t capable of performing as the team’s closer, eventually earning a demotion before being traded to Oakland.

Despite his enormous success in the years since the trade, it’s hard to question the Nationals here. Not only did it seem apparent Treinen wasn’t going to figure things out in D.C., but the trade brought back Sean Doolittle, the lone consistently great reliever the Nats have had in recent years.

Brandon Kintzler

Kintzler pitched parts of two seasons in Washington, but ultimately spent exactly one year with the Nationals. In that year, he tossed 68.2 innings while striking out 43 batters and walking 18.

His ERA with the Nationals was 3.54, too high for a high-leverage reliever. He struggled mightily in 2018 after being traded to the Cubs, but has settled down this season to the tune of a 2.96 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 24 innings.

As is the case for just about any halfway-decent reliever, the current Nationals bullpen would benefit from having him, but this isn’t nearly the loss Treinen or Vasquez were.

Shawn Kelley

Kelley was up-and-down in his time with the Nationals. His ERA was below three in 2016 and 2018, but the 2017 season was marred with injuries, inconsistency, and a tendency to allow home runs (a whopping 12 in just 26 innings).

Of course, Kelley was pitching better in 2018, but it wasn’t performance that led to his departure. 

In a blowout Nationals 25-4 victory over the Mets in July 2018, Kelley allowed three earned runs, including a home run. After the home run, he slammed his glove on the ground while staring at the Nats dugout.

The next day, he was designated for assignment as a result of the outburst and never pitched for the Nationals again, traded away a few days later. 

In his 33.2 innings since the trade, Kelley has been terrific. He posted a 2.16 ERA with the Athletics in 2018 and currently holds a 1.59 ERA in 2019 despite pitching his home games in Texas. He’s even filled in at closer with the Rangers, recording five saves so far this year.

Though his removal wasn’t for performance issues like Kintzler's or to acquire proven closers like Treinen’s and Vasquez’s were, the loss of Kelley can be felt just as hard. As is the case with each of these relievers, Kelley’s numbers would lead the Nationals bullpen in just about every category.

For the most part, these moves made sense at the time, for one reason or another. But the Nationals have yet to adequately replace most of these arms, and the 2019 team is suffering as a result.

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Baltimore Ravens Roundup: Free agent Gerald McCoy to visit Baltimore

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Baltimore Ravens Roundup: Free agent Gerald McCoy to visit Baltimore

Kick off your holiday weekend with the latest Baltimore Ravens news.

1. One of the most obvious needs for the Ravens is help rushing the passer, and they're hoping to find some of that help on the interior in the form of free agent Gerald McCoy. The longtime Buccaneer DL visited Cleveland last week, but left town without agreeing to a contract.

Reportedly interested in playing for a contender, the former top-five pick is scheduled to visit the Ravens on Tuesday.

2. Quarterback Lamar Jackson is still struggling to throw the ball, as he noted things aren't right yet when it comes to accuracy. Media members noticed the ball wobbling through the air on many throws, and Jackson told them he thinks his hand is too high on the ball. If he's going to successfully run Greg Roman's new offensive scheme, Jackson will eventually need to be able to hit his receivers in stride with greater regularity.

Looking Ahead:

July 15: 4 p.m. deadline to get a long-term deal done with designated franchise tag players.

The 2019 NFL schedule is set! See the Baltimore Ravens defend the AFC North at M&T Bank Stadium this season. Get your tickets now at www.BaltimoreRavens.com/tickets.

Credit: Rotoworld and Baltimore Ravens for news points.

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