Nationals

Column: Are you ready for some bowls?! We aren't

201211302237814306782-p2.jpeg

Column: Are you ready for some bowls?! We aren't

This college football bowl season is like a brand of Chex Mix that comes with a bunch of nuts you don't really care to eat.

Sure, there's a handful of enticing matchups that are worthy of your time for three or so hours. But by the time you're done picking through to the good ones, you realize there's not much left.

Well, there are other things to do this holiday season.

Like, go ice skating.

Or, check out all the pretty lights.

Whatever it is, there's never been a better reason to spend some time - some real quality time - with your friends and family.

Believe us, you won't be missing a thing if you tune out what will soon be running virtually nonstop on your plasma screen, in all its high-def ugliness. This is nothing more than a bunch of meaningless contests between mediocre teams, a lineup that that makes ``Honey Boo Boo'' look like ``Downton Abbey.''

Call it Must-Miss TV.

The guys who run the system clearly take us as nothing but a bunch of suckers, willing to watch whatever drivel they put before us as long they attach the word ``bowl'' to some product they're pushing.

When the complete list of bowls was finally unveiled in all its glory Sunday night, most of the attention turned to Northern Illinois, a team that somehow made the Orange Bowl after losing to Iowa (which won 33 percent of its games) and barely beating Army and Kansas (who combined for a grand total of three victories).

But let's not take out our wrath on the ... uh, hmmm ... whatever their nickname is. We should actually be saluting the MAC champs, because they're like a single minnow swimming ahead bravely to take on the BCS sharks, all while making an already ludicrous system look even sillier.

Besides, there's plenty of bowl games that are far more objectionable than the one in Miami between the Seminoles of Florida State and the ... uh, hmm ... oh yeah, the Huskies, that's it, of Northern Illinois.

The good folks of El Paso will be subjected to a Sun Bowl featuring a team with a losing record (Georgia Tech) and perhaps the most underachieving squad in all the land (USC).

The Yellow Jackets (6-7) needed a waiver from the NCAA before they could accept their invitation. The Trojans lost five times after starting the season at No. 1.

``We're excited about a very good bowl and a great matchup,'' said USC coach Lane Kiffin, who we can only assume awoke the next morning to find his nose had grown by a foot or two.

But, who knows, maybe one of Kiffin's minions will go all rogue again and deflate the tires on the team buses. That way, they can't leave their hotels and no one would have to be subjected to such a marquee matchup.

Though, we must say, this game might have some car-crash appeal if held in conjunction with a Kiffin family reunion. The bratty coach already dumped his 72-year-old dad because of the team's defensive woes, and he surely would be willing to jettison a few more relatives if the Trojans lost again.

Georgia Tech, meanwhile, was blown out at home by Middle Tennessee, lost its final regular-season game by 32 points and wound up with a losing record after getting into the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game by default, the next team in line after Miami decided to spend another postseason in self-imposed lockdown.

Even after losing the ACC game, the Yellow Jackets still got the call that extended their bowl streak to 16 years in a row.

Talk about an achievement worthy of an asterisk.

But, this isn't about one particular school. There's plenty of averageness to go around.

A dozen teams received bowl bids with records of 6-6, which is often the sort of mark that gets a coach fired, not earns his team a trip at the holidays. (Or, in the case of Purdue, was bowl-worthy AND got the coach fired).

In fact, there are two games matching a pair of 6-6 teams - Rice vs Air Force in the Armed Services Bowl at Fort Worth (sorry, our men and women in uniform) and Pittsburgh vs. Ole Miss in the BBVA Compass Bowl at Birmingham.

When those kind of teams get together, they're hoping you throw out the record book.

Instead, you should change the channel.

Yet, none of the 35 bowls could find a spot for Louisiana Tech, the highest-scoring team in the country, a squad that won nine times and barely lost to Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M in one of the most entertaining games of the season.

The Bulldogs apparently weren't too thrilled about the idea of going to the nearby Independence Bowl to dance with another team from their own state (Louisiana-Monroe). They thought they had might get a call from someone more handsome. The Independence was all, like, why you disrespectin' us, girlfriend? So they called up Ohio (University, not State), which said ``yes.''

``Under no circumstances did I ever think there was any possibility at all that we would not play in a bowl game,'' Louisiana Tech coach Sonny Dykes said. ``It is a shame that our nationally recognized team and its 31 seniors have to end the season this way.''

No, the real shame is that college football ends its season this way.

We're promised a playoff in 2014, but we should see through that four-team ruse. It's a way to silence everyone who wants a legitimate playoff (16 teams, minimum) and keep alive the bowl system, nothing more than a nonprofit scam lining the pockets of its operators with exorbitant salaries for the taxing job of putting on one game a year.

Maybe if the fans stop watching, there will be a true playoff.

Maybe if the fans stop buying tickets, all these meaningless games will wither up and die.

There's no better time to start than now.

Happy Bowl Season!

Now, go do something else.

---

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.or or www.twitter.com

Quick Links

Joe Maddon's protest prompts Sean Doolittle to call his act 'tired'

doolittle-reg.jpg
USA Today Sports images

Joe Maddon's protest prompts Sean Doolittle to call his act 'tired'

WASHINGTON -- Sean Doolittle stood at his locker in the clubhouse still roiled by what occurred in the ninth inning Saturday. 

His clean inning for his eighth save was not on his mind. Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon was.

The Cubs appeared to enact a pre-planned grouse when they say Doolittle next. Chicago quality assurance coach Chris Denorfia was talking to the umpires as Doolittle warmed up in the 5-2 game. Following Doolittle's first pitch, Maddon popped out of the dugout to begin his banter, and eventual protest, of Doolittle's delivery.

At question was Doolittle's toe tap. With no runners on base, he raises his front leg, drops and holds it for a count, then grazes the dirt with is cleat before he fully comes to the plate. Doolittle started this almost a year ago during a late May series in Miami. No one had complained since -- until Maddon emerged from the Cubs' dugout.

If the umpires deem the move illegal, the outcome is a ball called with the bases empty or a balk called with runners on base. Saturday, home plate umpire Sam Holbrook told Doolittle he was doing nothing wrong. Which turned the postgame discussion around the event to Maddon's intentions. 

A starting point would be one of Maddon's relievers, Carl Edwards Jr., tried to add a similar move in spring training. But Edwards was putting his full foot on the ground and was told the move was illegal. 
Doolittle was more inclined to believe Maddon's primary motivation was to rattle him at the start of the save opportunity, and he calmly, but clearly, took digs at Maddon for the process. 

"After the first time Joe came out, the home plate umpire was like you're fine, just keep it moving," Doolittle said. "Don't start, stop and start again. Just keep it moving. I was like, that's what I do all the time anyway, so...in that moment, he's not trying to do anything other than rattle me and it was kind of tired. I don't know. Sometimes he has to remind people how smart he is and how much he pays attention to the game and stuff like that. He put his stamp on it for sure. 

"I actually have to thank him. After they came out the second, the [Kyle] Schwarber at-bat, I threw two fastballs and a slider and a fastball to [Kris] Bryant and those were probably the best ones I've thrown in a while. I don't do the tap when there's somebody on base so I can keep my pickoff move available if I need it. I've had a lot of traffic recently, so I've had practice doing it, so it wasn't like a huge adjustment to me. I don't know. In a way, I kind of need to thank him."
Doolittle wasn't finished. He was later asked if he thought Maddon was trying to get him to change his mechanics.

"Well, yeah, that's part of the mind game that he was trying to play and I get that," Doolittle said. "I guess I should take it as a compliment that he felt like he had to do that in order to try to throw me off my game in that situation. They're trying to get you to over-think it and change something in the middle of a save opportunity to give them a chance where you start making mistakes or are over-thinking it. 

"But once the home plate umpire tells me, he said, you're fine, just keep it moving, it's just a tap, at this point, I've been doing it for over a year. We're a month-and-a-half into the season, so I know their guy had to make an adjustment; I thought it was a thinly veiled attempt to kind of throw me off."

Members of the Nationals staff were also irked. Among their concerns was the chance for Doolittle to injure himself if he suddenly changed his delivery.
Maddon was adamant the situation was created by Edwards not being allowed to alter his delivery.

“It’s really simple," Maddon said. "That’s exactly what Carl (Edwards) was told he can’t do. And I was told it was an illegal pitch and he can’t do it. I went to Sam (Holbrook), and I told him that. And he said, ‘in our judgment.’ I said, ‘there’s no judgment. If he taps the ground, it’s an illegal pitch, period.’ There’s nothing to judge. You can judge whether he did or not. It’s obvious that he did. If you can’t tell that, then there’s something absolutely wrong. So that was my argument.

"I said if you guys don’t clean it up, I’m going to protest the game.  So we protested the game. For me, I don’t know how many he actually did make that were illegal pitches. I don’t know how they’re going to rule with this. It’s their rule. It’s not mine. I didn’t ask for it in the first place. They took it away from Carl. They took it away from (Cory) Gearrin. They’ve taken it away from a couple guys and they seem to be somewhat aware, but not aware of what had happened."

Wherever the truth resides, Saturday night became another installment in the oddities when Chicago and Washington play. The Cubs walked Bryce Harper 13 times in 19 plate appearances in 2016. The 2017 five-game National League Division Series which ended in Nationals Park included Stephen Strasburg's mystery illness and PR gaffe about who would pitch Game 4 in Chicago. Add Saturday night to the strangeness and buckle up for Sunday's series finale.

MORE NATIONALS NEWS:

Quick Links

Strasburg dazzles as another quick start leads to a Nationals win

soto_dozier.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

Strasburg dazzles as another quick start leads to a Nationals win

The Washington Nationals bounced back to beat the Chicago Cubs, 5-2, Saturday to improve to 19-26. Here are five observations from the game…

1. Davey Martinez can’t draw up a night on the mound much better than riding Stephen Strasburg long enough to get to one inning of Sean Doolittle.

Of course, that was only possible thanks to the brilliance of Strasburg, who tossed eight stellar innings Saturday. He was efficient throughout, throwing just 93 pitches and walking only one. Strasburg allowed four hits, two runs (only one earned), and struck out seven Cubs.

Strasburg “only” induced 15 swinging strikes, far from his best number this season, but still pretty good. It didn’t matter, especially with how quickly he was able to make work of the Cubs, getting ground ball after ground ball all night long.

NBC Sports Washington’s own Todd Dybas pointed out midway through the start how Strasburg was going back to his fastball after multiple starts in this recent successful stretch where he featured his curveball prominently. That pattern held throughout his eight innings, and tonight, nearly half (7) of Strasburg’s swinging strikes came on the four-seamer.

Strasburg’s success tonight continues a great recent stretch. He’s allowed just 10 earned runs in his last 42.1 innings, spanning six starts. He’s got 54 strikeouts and just six walks in those starts, a remarkable 9:1 ratio. 

It all adds up to one of the best stretches of Strasburg’s career, as he continues to cement himself as one of three true aces on the current Washington staff. And tonight may have been the most impressive outing yet, considering how deep he went into the game and how hot the opponent’s bats had been.

2. The Nationals are hoping their lineup sees an uptick in performance with guys like Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, and Trea Turner getting back in the swing of things after time on the IL. Those three combined for five hits, three RBI and three runs Saturday.

But it would go a long way for the offense if Brian Dozier finds his stroke as well.

The powerful second baseman is a notoriously slow starter, but when he gets on a hot streak, he can carry a team. It’s only two games, but this may be the start of one of his patented “in the zone” streaks at the plate.

Dozier has gone 3-for-4 and 2-for-4 in back to back games, including a stretch where he reach base six straight times. That includes tonight’s home run to start the scoring for the Nats.

It’s been hard to fault Davey Martinez for his daily lineup construction with all the injuries. Now that his team is getting healthy, it will be interesting to see where Dozier fits in. The top of the order seems well set with Turner, Rendon, and Soto sandwiching one or two of Howie Kendrick, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton. 

Where does that leave Dozier? Probably in the 6-7 range. But if he keeps swinging the bat like he has against the Cubs, that could change. In a week, Martinez has gone from not having enough viable options to potentially having too many. I’m sure he’s happier with the latter.

3. A pattern has emerged in recent wins for the Nationals. When they get off to a quick start, they win. When they don’t, they lose.

In four of their last five victories, the Nats have scored first, including early-inning leads of at least three runs in each game.

In the four losses during the same stretch, the opposing team scored first each time, including three times in the first inning. In those losses, the Nationals were ultimately outscored by a combined 31-8.

In other words, quick starts have been crucial to the team’s success. It’s a narrative that would make sense even if the numbers didn’t back it up. With the way the team has struggled so consistently this season, it would be natural to feel deflated after an early deficit. That feeling is magnified with the lack of faith in the bullpen's ability to keep games within reach.

Saturday night against the Cubs kept this pattern going, with the Nats jumping on the board first with a Brian Dozier home run in the second inning, followed by the three-run fourth inning. That would prove to be all the support Strasburg needed, and once again Washington was able to ride early momentum to a relatively easy win.

4. The team as a whole was looking to bounce back Saturday night, but so was their best reliever.

Doolittle has been, far and away, the most reliable, valuable member of the Nationals bullpen in 2019, but against the Mets Thursday, he wasn’t himself. The lefty allowed four hits and two earned runs in his inning of work, walking one and striking out two on 31 pitches.

Coming off his worst inning of the season, Doolittle was back to his usual self against the Cubs.  He only needed seven pitches (six strikes) to make quick work of Chicago in the top of the ninth inning and earn his eighth save, even with some funny business.

Joe Maddon came out to protest with the umpires about Doolittle tapping his toe on the mound after beginning his windup. It’s a move the Cubs’ own Carl Edwards Jr. had been banned from doing, so his manager was obviously upset to see the Nats’ star closer getting away with something similar.

It’s unclear if anything else will come from the points Maddon brought up, but on Saturday at least, Doolittle was unfazed even after getting “iced” by the opposing manager.

5. For all the struggles the Nats have faced this season, they might be in the midst of a turning point.

It may not feel like it to frustrated fans who just want to see the team reel off several straight wins, but the Nationals have put themselves in position to potentially "win" their third straight series against a quality opponent. Yes, technically the Los Angeles series was a 2-2 split, but considering the Dodgers had only lost four games at home all season prior to the Nats’ trip, we’ll count the split as a win.

They followed that up taking two of three from the Mets, who have faltered of late but are still talented enough to be heard from in the National League East this season.

And now, after bouncing back from last night’s tough 14-6 loss, the Nats have earned an opportunity to grab another series win Sunday night. Of course, they’ll need a strong start from Jeremy Hellickson, which is less likely than it was Friday with Scherzer or Saturday with Strasburg.

Eventually, if the Nationals want to make any real noise, they will need an elongated winning streak. They’ve yet to win more than two consecutive games at any point this season, and have already experienced three losing streaks longer than that.

The talent is there, especially as much of the team gets healthy, and the schedule is finally lightening up. Nats fans are tired of hearing it, but this may finally be the successful stretch they’ve been waiting for. At the very least, the opportunity is there.

MORE NATIONALS NEWS: