Nationals

Cousins shines in Redskins' 38-21 win over Browns

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Cousins shines in Redskins' 38-21 win over Browns

CLEVELAND (AP) The Redskins were unwilling to risk their future.

Kirk Cousins took care of their present.

With star quarterback Robert Griffin III sidelined with a sprained right knee, Cousins threw two touchdown passes in his first NFL start and led Washington to its fifth straight win, 38-21 over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

An unheralded fourth-round pick, Cousins has spent his first season as Griffin's understudy.

For one day, he relished a chance to be the star.

``It's a game I will remember for a long time,'' said Cousins, who passed for 329 yards and kept the Redskins' playoff push from losing any speed. ``If I die tomorrow, I can say I started a game in the NFL and we won. It's a good feeling.''

Cousins connected with Leonard Hankerson for both TDs in his first career start, Alfred Morris ran for two TDs and the Redskins (8-6) barely missed a beat without the talented RG3, who was told Saturday night he would not play or be active for the crucial game.

Almost 24 hours after learning of the Redskins' decision, one coach Mike Shanahan based on the recommendation of doctors, Griffin was still upset.

``Players play, so I was not happy with the decision,'' Griffin said. ``But at the end of the day, that's the decision they went with. I respect that, but it doesn't mean I necessarily have to like it. They said they were just protecting me from myself, not allowing me to put myself in harm's way.''

Cousins finished 27 of 36, rushed three times for 22 yards and ran Washington's offense with RG3-like precision.

A week ago, he came off the bench to rescue the Redskins after Griffin sustained a Grade 1 sprain of the lateral collateral ligament. Cousins was on the field from the opening kickoff against the Browns and showed he can lead Washington just as effectively as his more hyped teammate.

``Kirk did an excellent job of executing everything we asked him to do,'' Shanahan said.

With their longest winning streak since 2007, the Redskins moved into a three-way tie with New York and Dallas atop the NFC East.

Afterward, Griffin conceded Washington's win took out some of the sting out of having to stand on the sideline in a burgundy-colored warmup suit and stocking cap.

``It was a great business trip for us,'' Griffin said. ``I got healthier by not playing, we won the game and put ourselves in position to control our own destiny.''

For the Browns (5-9), this December is on its way to ending like so many others.

Cleveland had its three-game winning streak stopped, its playoff hopes dashed.

There doesn't appear to be much of a chance that coach Pat Shurmur will keep his job. In fact, the Browns may undergo another massive overhaul once new owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner get done. They must have cringed at the mass exodus by Cleveland fans from the home finale after the Redskins pulled away in the fourth quarter.

``We let ourselves down and we let the whole city of Cleveland down,'' said rookie running back Trent Richardson, who had two rushing TDs. ``We're supposed to go out with a blast. It was a big ballgame and we didn't do what we were supposed to do.''

Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden struggled from the outset. He went 21 of 35 for 244 yards and threw two interceptions in the third quarter, both leading to Washington TDs. Weeden had several passes batted down and he did nothing to quiet debate over whether he should be Cleveland's QB going forward.

Shurmur refused to call Weeden's performance a ``setback'' but that's exactly what it appeared to be.

``Obviously I didn't play well enough for us to win,'' Weeden said. ``I didn't play well for the most part throughout. I'm not losing any confidence over it, because I felt like I'm still going in the right direction. I just didn't play well enough to put this team in position to win. I put our defense in a tough spot. You just can't turn it over.''

Griffin practiced all week and assumed he would start after displaying his mobility. But the Redskins were concerned he could further injure his knee and decided to sit him.

``He tried to show us everything that he could possibly do to get himself ready to play,'' said Shanahan, now one win behind Mike Holmgren for 11th place on the career list. ``I was so impressed with how he worked. But at the end of the day, the doctors did not feel he was ready. That LCL was just not in position for him to play a live game.''

Cousins might not be RG3, but he was efficient, accurate and only made one major mistake - an early interception to set up Cleveland's first TD.

If the Browns thought they were getting a break with Cousins, he proved to be as challenging to stop as Griffin.

``This isn't my first rodeo,'' Cousins said. ``I did play a lot of football in the Big Ten. We started slow, but you've got to have character to dig deep. We didn't get spooked by a slow start.''

Cousins' second TD pass to Hankerson gave the Redskins a 24-14 lead. As Cousins came to the sideline, Griffin gave him a fist bump and then sat on the bench with his backup, who for the past two weeks has shown he too can lead the Redskins.

Before the game, Griffin gave Cousins some advice.

``I talked to him about being cool, calm and collected and not to freak out,'' Griffin said. ``He did a good job of staying poised and staying confident in there.''

NOTES: With his two rushing TDs, Richardson broke Hall of Famer Jim Brown's 55-year-old team rookie record. Brown had nine in 1957. ... Redskins K Kai Forbath made a 44-yard field goal and is 15 of 15, one shy of the NFL record to start a career set by Garrett Hartley. ... Morris has nine TDs rushing, passing Skip Hicks (1998) for the most by a Redskins rookie. ... Shanahan said OT Tyler Polumbus has a concussion. ... Shanahan did not have any updates on injuries to LB Lorenzo Alexander (shoulder) or OL Will Montgomery (knee). ... Browns S T.J. Ward injured his knee.

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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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