Nationals

Could winning out save coaches on the hot seat?

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Could winning out save coaches on the hot seat?

Andy Reid got such a hearty hug on the sideline from Howard Mudd that the 70-year-old assistant with the artificial hip actually lifted the burly head coach off his feet.

Norv Turner received a game ball from the team president.

Reid and Turner were just two of four coaches on the hot seat who celebrated wins on Sunday, joining Ron Rivera and Pat Shurmur.

Reid's Philadelphia Eagles (4-9) snapped an eight-game losing streak when rookie Nick Foles threw a touchdown pass with no time left to beat Tampa Bay 23-21.

Turner led the San Diego Chargers (5-8) to their first regular-season victory in Pittsburgh in 15 tries. A 34-24 win over Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers kept the Chargers mathematically alive for a wild-card playoff berth.

Rivera watched his Carolina Panthers (4-9) build a 23-0 lead against NFC South champion Atlanta and hold on for a 30-20 upset.

Shurmur is actually getting used to winning in Cleveland. The Browns (5-8) beat Kansas City 30-7 for their third straight victory to also keep slim playoff hopes alive.

But, is it too late for any of the four coaches to save their job?

``Listen, I'm not worried about any of that,'' Shurmur said Monday. ``I'm not worried about saving, I'm worried about doing my job and that's it. I just want to do my job.''

He could've been speaking on behalf of the other coaches, too.

``That's not the thing that's on my mind,'' Turner said about his job status. ``We're trying to get ready for Carolina and trying to build on what we did. That's where I'm at.''

Reid and Rivera have expressed similar thoughts whenever asked.

Of the four, Reid may have the least security, even though he's been the most successful among the group and is the longest-tenured coach in the NFL at 14 years.

Reid is assured his third losing season and second in a row. The Eagles entered each of the last two seasons as Super Bowl contenders and failed miserably. Team owner Jeffrey Lurie already gave Reid a directive before the season, saying the Eagles had to make ``substantial improvement'' on their 8-8 finish from last year.

It's a foregone conclusion in what-have-you-done-for-me-lately Philadelphia that Reid won't be back. Local comedian Joe Conklin and his daughter, Casey, put together a video parody of Taylor Swift's song ``We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together'' mocking Reid. It's called: ``We Are Never Ever Gonna Win With Andy.'' The video already has nearly 400,000 views on YouTube.

Fans and media have speculated about Reid's potential replacement and the nature of his departure for months. The only question here is whether Reid steps down or is fired.

But Lurie and Reid are closer than a typical owner-coach relationship. Reid also is due to make about $6 million in 2013. So, it's not entirely unreasonable to think Lurie could let him finish his contract, especially if the Eagles win the final three games.

Lurie could cite several reasons, including turmoil and injuries. Reid fired defensive coordinator Juan Castillo in October and defensive-line coach Jim Washburn last week. Michael Vick, LeSean McCoy and DeSean Jackson - the team's top three offensive players - have missed a total of eight games. The offensive line was decimated by injuries.

There's also the rookie quarterback factor. Foles has shown signs of being a long-term answer. Reid was hired by the Eagles largely due to the role he played in developing Brett Favre when he was an assistant in Green Bay. Donovan McNabb had an outstanding career under Reid in Philadelphia. Perhaps Lurie would want to keep Foles in proven hands.

All that said, the city might riot if Lurie doesn't part ways with Reid.

There wouldn't be upheaval in San Diego if Turner stays. But that's unlikely. The Chargers are headed toward a third straight year out of the playoffs, and are one loss away from their first losing season since 2003.

Chargers president Dean Spanos is expected to fire Turner and general manager A.J. Smith shortly after this dismal season ends. Reid, by the way, has been mentioned as a potential successor.

In Carolina, Rivera is coaching like a guy who expects to return. He's playing younger guys and preparing them for the future whether he's part of it or not.

The Panthers fired GM Marty Hurney after a 1-5 start. At that time, Rivera said he was told by owner Jerry Richardson the team needs to be ``trending upward'' the rest of the season. The Panthers are 3-4 since, including the impressive win over the Falcons.

Richardson hasn't talked about his plans. He does have to hire a new GM, who likely would want to bring in his own coach.

``The disappointing thing is that's what we can be,'' Rivera said after the win over the Falcons. ``We know that. Based on what we did, how we did it and who we did it with, that's the disappointing thing. ... We've found balance, we have. Unfortunately, we didn't do it sooner.''

Shurmur could make the best argument to keep his job. The Browns are 5-3 after an 0-5 start and they have a roster filled with young players. Cleveland's rookies have combined to make 72 starts - a league high.

``That's good for the future because we're finally starting to find how to win football games with these young players,'' Shurmur said.

Whether that future includes Shurmur remains to be seen.

New owner Jimmy Haslam and new CEO Joe Banner may want to hand-pick their own coach to run the franchise. But if the Browns win out and finish the season on a six-game winning streak, firing Shurmur would be hard to justify.

Other coaches who could be looking for employment include Tennessee's Mike Munchak. The Titans (4-9) have lost five of their last six, and owner Bud Adams put the entire franchise on notice following a 51-20 loss to Chicago on Nov. 4.

Munchak, who has a year left on his contract, fired offensive coordinator Chris Palmer two weeks ago and may have to make other staff changes to keep his own job when this season ends.

In Buffalo, Chan Gailey appears safe despite the Bills (5-8) being headed toward their 13th straight season out of the playoffs. Gailey is just 15-30 with the Bills, but general manager Buddy Nix has insisted he has no intention of firing him.

Reid, Turner, Rivera, Shurmur and Munchak haven't received similar votes of confidence.

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AP Sports Writers Tom Withers, Steve Reed, Teresa Walker, John Wawrow and Bernie Wilson contributed to this report.

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Follow Rob Maaddi on Twitter:https://twitter.com/RobMaaddi

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

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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.

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Strasburg dazzles as another quick start leads to a Nationals win

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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.

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