Nationals

Column: Big ball, small ball, Giants have it all

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Column: Big ball, small ball, Giants have it all

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) The bunt just wouldn't go foul, despite the best efforts of the Detroit players who gathered around it and tried to will it across the chalk down the third base line. It couldn't go foul, because that might have ruined the whole aura the San Francisco Giants spent two games creating on their way toward taking command of this World Series.

Gregor Blanco thought he had pulled it too much but ran anyway, as hard as he could toward first. Hunter Pence had no such doubt as he watched the ball die on the dirt from his prime vantage point heading for third.

``One of the most beautiful bunts you'll ever see,'' said Pence, who moments later would come home with the only run the Giants would need in a 2-0 win in Game 2.

Three home runs by the Panda the night before in a most improbable win against Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Small ball on this night, the way the Giants played it all year long in the National League.

And now a trip to Detroit with their two best pitchers lined up for the weekend and their second World Series title in three years suddenly squarely in their sights.

``It seems like the game is on our side right now,'' Blanco said. ``If it takes a bunt single to win the World Series, so be it. We'll take it.''

Indeed they will. Who needs a Triple Crown winner and a slugger lured from the National League just for these kinds of games, when a double play ground ball was good enough to put the Giants in the lead in the seventh and a sacrifice fly scored another an inning later without the benefit of one hit?

Superstars can turn games around, but how about Marco Scutaro keeping this one on check when he raced from second base to back up a relay throw and fire to home in the second inning just in time to get Prince Fielder sliding in while trying to score from first?

And say what you want about Pablo Sandoval's body type, but he managed to get airborne enough at third base to spear a line drive by Miguel Cabrera in the fourth inning that could have easily gone for a double and scored Omar Infante from first.

``I don't know about baseball gods, but I'll tell you one thing: I hope the ball keeps bouncing our way,'' Giants lefty Jeremy Affeldt said. ``It's been huge for us.''

Just as huge is that the Giants have the three things every team needs to win a World Series: Pitching, pitching, pitching.

First it was Barry Zito coming back from nowhere to beat Verlander in Game 1. On Thursday night it was Madison Bumgarner finding something with his delivery to throw seven innings of two-hit ball after being dropped from the rotation in the NLCS when his ERA soared to 11.25.

To throw Ryan Vogelsong in Game 3 on Saturday and follow him with staff ace Matt Cain almost seems unfair.

``Having Vogelsong and Cain to pitch means so much to us in big games,'' Affeldt said. ``It's not a bad thing to say we're in a good spot right now up 2-0.''

This wasn't how the Tigers envisioned the series playing out, especially after eliminating the New York Yankees early and getting to rest up while the Giants battled back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the St. Louis Cardinals and somehow make their way into the World Series. They came in with a pitching rotation lined up behind Verlander and sluggers who figured to give two pitchers who were big question marks fits.

The Vegas oddsmakers favored them, especially in Game 1. But they've been shut down by San Francisco's pitching, and everything the Giants do seems to work.

As if anything else could go wrong for the Tigers, starting pitcher Doug Fister was hit in the head with a line drive by Blanco in the second inning that bounced off of him and ended up in center field for a hit. Thankfully, Fister didn't seem injured by the glancing blow and went on to retire 12 straight Giants during one stretch.

``I'm not concerned. I have a minor bump,'' Fister said. ``According to my dad my whole life his saying has always been if I got hit in the head I'd be OK. That's how I take it.''

The Tigers may not be able to absorb their lumps in San Francisco as easily. They've got to find a way to rekindle their offense, and do it against the two best starters the Giants have, and they have to find a closer they can trust after the awful postseason Jose Valverde is having.

But they'll be at home in front of friendly fans, and it does still take wins in four games to win a World Series.

``They definitely got the breaks on their side, but they also play good baseball,'' Fielder said. ``Hopefully we go home and we get some breaks our way.''

If anything, the Tigers can take some consolation in what the Giants have done themselves. Just when all seemed lost in their playoff opener against Cincinnati, they won the last three games on the road to win the series, and followed that by beating the Cardinals three straight to get in the series.

Compared to that, coming back from a 2-0 deficit with the next three games at home seems quite doable for the Tigers.

``This is baseball,'' Cabrera said. ``It's no time to put your head down. We're going try go out there more aggressive at home, trying to win the first one. If we win the first one I think it's going to be a different story.''

After a long two days in San Francisco, the Tigers can only hope that story has a better ending.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or follow athttp://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

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USA TODAY

3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

Nationals fans are teetering on the edge. 

On one hand, the Nats are 3.5 games out of first place after a 10-week span full of injuries and underperformance. The team just acquired All-Star closer Kelvin Herrera, and their 19-year-old left fielder looks like an All-Star already. 

On the other hand, doom is imminent. The Monstars stole Bryce Harper's abilities at some point over the last three weeks, Steven Strasburg can't stay healthy, and the offense is pushing everyone's patience to the limit. 

So who's overperforming? Who's underperforming? Who's out there just trying their very best? LET'S LIST. 

Three Up

1. Juan Soto

Our large young son Juan continues to impress. He's now hitting .325/.411/.602 with a 1.013 OPS in 95 plate appearances over 25 games. That means we're mercifully starting to leave the 'fluky start' narrative behind. He's been the best hitter on the Nationals by a wide margain since he got called up - although that's perhaps more of an indicitment on the rest of the lineup than it is on Soto. Still, in less than a month he's probably earned the starting left field spot for the rest of the summer. Not bad. 

2. Justin Miller

Miller is 31, on his third team in four years, and owns a career ERA north of 4.50. Despite all of this, Miller's been the best reliever in baseball since coming up for the Nats. Of relief pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched (we hear your sample size comment and are not going to acknolwdge it), no one has a better FIP than Miller (0.64). He's striking out over half of the batters he sees and has yet to walk a single person this year. All the elite relief pitchers are already at 30-40 innings pitched, so Miller has a while to go before these stats mean a whole lot. If he stays even 75 percent as good as he's started, the Nats' bullpen looks scary. 

3. Michael A. Taylor

Have yourself a week or two, Michael A.! The centerfielder is slashing .500/.556/.583 over the last 14 days, the first of many "Maybe He Put It Together?!" runs we'll see from him this year. He also has six stolen bases during that span, more than anyone else on the team. His plate discipline has been better over the last two weeks, with a BB% a shade over 11 percent - only behind Juan Soto for highest on the team. Juan Soto, man. 

Three Down

1. Bryce Harper

A couple things here. We'll start with the admission that Bryce Harper is obviously not having a superb year. We've already briefly touched on why looking at only his batting average is a lazy way of judging his season, and we stand by that. With that said - Harper's had a bad season. The last month has been particularly painful. There's no way of dressing up a .189/.278/.400 slashline over the last 30 days. Still, his contact has been as great as his luck terrible - there's a positive regression coming, we promise. 

2. Pedro Severino 

And you think Harper's been slumping?? Over the same 30 days, Severino has hit .098/.179/.115 with a .294 OPS. He's essentially daring the Nats to put together a trade package for JT Realmuto at this point. He has six hits over his last 68 plate appearances and five of them are singles. 

3. Shawn Kelley

Kelley owns a 6.09 FIP and a 4.32 ERA over the last month (10 games, 8.1 innings pitched). He's walking close to nine percent of the hitters he's faced during that time. He has a 12.5 HR/FB over the last month. With the trade for Kelvin Herrera and the sudden emergence of Justin Miller, Kelley's role going forward isn't quite as clear anymore. 

MORE NATS NEWS:

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Wizards 2018 NBA Draft prospect profile: Jerome Robinson

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USA TODAY Sports

Wizards 2018 NBA Draft prospect profile: Jerome Robinson

The Washington Wizards hold the 15th and 44th overall picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. Here is the latest in our series on draft prospects projected to be picked around where the Wizards will select...

2018 NBA Draft Wizards Prospect Preview: Jerome Robinson

School: Boston College
Position: Shooting guard
Age: 21
Height: 6-5
Weight: 188
Wingspan: 6-7
Max vertical: N/A

2017/18 stats: 20.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.1 bpg, 48.5 FG%, 40.9 3PT% (2.3 3PT/5.7 3PA), 83.0 FT%
Player comparison: Danny Green
Projections: NBC Sports Washington 29th, NBADraft.net 16th, Bleacher Report 19th, Sports Illustrated 17th

5 things to know:

*A three-year player at BC, Robinson developed into a big-time scorer before making the leap to the NBA. He averaged 18.7 points as a sophomore and then 20.7 points as a junior while improving his shooting percentages across the board. He went from 42.3 percent from the field as a sophomore to 48.5 in 2017-18.

*Robinson turned himself into an excellent three-point shooter. After shooting just 33.3 percent as a sophomore, he got that up to 40.9 percent as a junior and on 5.7 attempts per game. That trajectory bodes well for Robinson's chances at the next level.

*He has a quick release on his jumper, giving him the ability to be effective on catch-and-shoot plays off screens. Robinson could develop into a reliable scorer who doesn't need the ball in his hands as a primary focus of the offense. He also showed the ability to throw down some powerful dunks and finish with creativity at the rim. He didn't record a vertical leap at the NBA Combine, but playing above and around the rim didn't appear to be a problem in college.

*Though it didn't show in his last season at Boston College, Robinson was adept at forcing turnovers in his first two years. He averaged 1.6 steals per game across his freshman and sophomore seasons and 16 times in his career had three steals or more in a game.

*Questions for Robinson would include his versatility and speed. Some draft evaluators wonder if he will be able to get separation off the dribble at the NBA level. Also, he put up decent rebounding and assists numbers in college but didn't exactly stand out in either category.

Fit with Wizards: Robinson would give the Wizards depth at the shooting guard position and they need that. He could help Bradley Beal pare down his minutes and offer a scoring punch off the Wizards' bench. The Wizards could use a reliable shooter to help space the floor for Kelly Oubre, Jr. and others in the second unit.

The problems with Robinson's fit would be his lack of positional versatility and what appears to be a relatively low ceiling. He's not the freak athlete that some of his counterparts are at shooting guard. If the Wizards are choosing between Robinson and guys like Zhaire Smith and Lonnie Walker IV, they could view the latter two as more enticing because of their potential. Robinson would represent a safer pick while others could pay off big-time and have a greater impact on the franchise in the long-term.

Best highlight video:

More draft prospect profiles:

Kevin Knox, PF, Kentucky

Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State

Robert Williams, PF/C, Texas A&M

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky

Zhaire Smith, SG, Texas Tech

Landry Shamet, PG/SG, Wichita State

Gary Trent, Jr., SG, Duke

Lonnie Walker IV, SG, Miami

Anfernee Simons, PG/SG, IMG Academy

Khyri Thomas, SG, Creighton

Chandler Hutchison, SG/SF, Boise State

Kevin Huerter, SG, Maryland

Mitchell Robinson, C, Western Kentucky

Troy Brown, SG/SF, Oregon

Donte DiVincenzo, SG, Villanova

Moritz Wagner, PF/C, Michigan

Aaron Holiday, PG, UCLA

Keita Bates-Diop, SF, Ohio State

For more on the NBA Draft, check out our latest episode of the Wizards Tipoff podcast:

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