Defensive lapses concern No. 16 Cardinals


Defensive lapses concern No. 16 Cardinals

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Louisville's defense feels good about making plays that have either changed or saved games this season.

The No. 16 Cardinals would feel better making more of the routine plays and avoid the need for late-game heroics.

Defensive lulls in Saturday's 27-25 win over South Florida cost the Cardinals another a big lead and force them to make another late stand to escape with a victory. It also was another unexpected battle with an underdog, reminding the Cardinals (7-0, 2-0 Big East Conference) they can't take any opponent for granted.

Louisville will need the complete defensive game that coach Charlie Strong has been stressing on Friday night in the Big East showdown against Cincinnati (5-1, 1-0), which leads the conference in several offensive categories - including scoring (34.7 points per game).

``When we get a lead, (that's) the time to really go hard instead of backing off,'' Strong said. ``It's not OK to let a team go down the field and score, even though we're up by 10 or 11 points. Now it's (time) to go lock down and really play aggressive and get off the field on third down.''

That's been a problem for Louisville, which ranks last in the conference (45.5 percent). South Florida converted 8 of 15 chances, rallying from a 14-3 halftime deficit to take a 25-21 lead into the final minutes before quarterback Teddy Bridgewater kept Louisville unbeaten with a game-winning touchdown drive.

Last month, North Carolina went 5 of 6 on third down in the second half to mount a 27-3 run that wiped out a 36-7 halftime deficit. The Tar Heels got within four yards of winning the game before the Cardinals' Andrew Johnson broke up a late pass in the end zone to preserve a 39-34 win.

``It's not the things they (opponents) do, it's the things we don't do that gets us in trouble,'' junior linebacker George Durant said. ``Our coaches have the game plan down to a `T,' and we have to dot the `I's'. If we execute that and stay in our gaps and do our assignments, we'll shut teams out.''

Most of the Cardinals' issues concern a run defense that was expected to be their strength this season. It still is for the most part, ranking 34th at 125.9 yards per game.

But that's 25 more than last year's average, and it's just fifth best in the Big East. In addition, the Cardinals have allowed 197 yards to South Florida and a season-high 224 to Southern Mississippi.

In comes Cincinnati, averaging a conference-best 225.7 rushing yards per game. Though the Bearcats gained 251 in Saturday's 29-23 loss at Toledo, their third-highest total this season, they expect more resistance from the Cardinals.

``They have a number of strengths,'' Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. ``First of all, their overall depth. They play a number of guys, they're big and physical up front. Their linebackers are run-and-hit guys that move extremely well laterally, and they have some very, very good corners and active safeties.

``They're a pressure-oriented defense and I think sometimes when you bring a lot of pressure, that kind of lends itself to the big play.''

Strong blames the problem on general inconsistency and specifically on players failing to sustain their gaps against the run. He believes both issues can be corrected with enhanced focus and remembering that stopping the run can lead to other good things.

``It might be one or two people out of a gap for various reasons, that's the main thing,'' Durant added. ``If everyone takes their gap, nobody gets a yard.''

But for all of those concerns, Saturday's game revealed examples of Louisville's resilience.

Sophomore defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin stopped South Florida late in the first half by sacking quarterback B.J. Daniels and stripping him of the ball, preserving Louisville's 14-3 lead. That highlighted a six-tackle day including three for loss and two sacks, earning Big East Defensive Player of the Week honors.

After Daniels rallied the Bulls with three second-half touchdown passes, he was denied on the final drive when Adrian Bushell intercepted his Hail Mary pass as time ran out.

The Cardinals hope that crunch-time focus can be applied earlier in games.

``People are down on our defense, and now we're just starting to let the country know that we are going to make a stand,'' said Mauldin, who has 2.5 sacks the past two games. ``We are making a stand for ourselves, and we're going to be the toughest defense in the Big East.''

Added linebacker Preston Brown, ``we're 7-0, so we're finding ways to win, but we need to put a complete game together so we don't have to worry about trying to get a Hail Mary pass down there in the fourth quarter.''

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Patrick Corbin shuts out the Marlins, Nationals win second straight

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Patrick Corbin shuts out the Marlins, Nationals win second straight

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals beat the Miami Marlins, 5-0, Saturday to raise their record to 21-31. Here are five observations from the game...

1. Good defense Saturday.

A simplistic thing, yet perversely elusive this season for the Nationals.

Washington committed no errors. It turned three double-plays, allowing the bullpen to be used for just three outs. Brian Dozier made two quality plays -- including snagging a line . Trea Turner charged a ground and used his jump throw to gain an out. Anthony Rendon charged a ground and used his smoothness to throw to first for another. Adam Eaton made a nice sliding catch.

Friday was nasty in the field. The Nationals committed three errors, should have been charged with four. Turner committed two (and would have been the recipient of a third if not for generous scoring). Manager Davey Martinez was not pleased with what he called “sloppy” play Friday. They clean it up Saturday.

2. Corbin was back for the eighth inning, starting with 89 pitches behind him and a run of retiring 16 out of 17.

Miami did not use one left-handed hitter Saturday. The strategy mattered little to Corbin, who picked up three double plays on the day and closed the eighth with a strikeout of Bryan Holaday.

Corbin was removed just five innings into his last start after throwing 98 pitches. Manager Davey Martinez said then the Nationals wanted to keep Corbin under 100 pitches three starts after he threw a career-high 118 pitches and was on a run of throwing at least 107 pitches.

Saturday, he finished the eighth at 103. Corbin hit for himself, despite two runners on base with two out, and came back out for the ninth. A strikeout, flyout and groundout followed.

In all, four hits, no runs, one walk and five strikeouts on 116 pitches.

3. The fourth inning had a little bit of everything Saturday. Adam Eaton committed a major running gaffe. Juan Soto ran from third on a contact play, stopped just short of home plate, then veered left and slid in safe. Victor Robles squared to bunt and leaned in. A 96-mph fastball came up and in, grazed his cheek and sent him to the ground. Team trainer Paul Lessard and manager Davey Martinez immediately ran out at the behest of home plate umpire Tim Timmons. Robles was OK, went to first, then later scored from first base on a single to shallow right.

The Nationals scored five runs in the inning to jolt what was a scoreless game. Eaton’s running mistake -- he made a hard turn at second base, then was hung up in a rundown -- carried the start of the inning. But, Yan Gomes’ squibber to right field redeemed Eaton by scoring three.

4. Sean Doolittle stood at his locker Friday night in case the media wanted to talk to him postgame following his second consecutive rough outing. Reporters took a pass -- no need to talk to a player every time they have a bad night -- and Doolittle went to the back for his postgame maintenance.

His two outings this week vaulted his ERA up almost two runs, from 1.71 to 3.68, before Saturday’s game.

Martinez said Doolittle’s recent bumps are not health-related, despite a downtick in velocity. Doolittle was throwing around 92 mph Friday. He hit 94 mph, but his velocity was down for the most part.

“Credit to Doolittle,” Martinez said. “He knows his stuff wasn’t what he wanted it to be [Friday], but he fought through it. That’s what a good closer does sometimes. I’ve got all the confidence and faith in the world...He knows what he needs to do. When you have a guy like that, and a closer like that, they know how to work out their [issues] when they’re struggling, some of his spin rate stuff he’s going to look at. The biggest thing is I don’t want him to start thinking there’s something wrong with him. I told him that [Friday]: ‘You’re one of the best. You’re an elite closer. It’s OK. Guys go through that.

5. The Nationals called up right-handed reliever James Borque from Double-A Harrisburg on Saturday. Joe Ross, who allowed three earned runs in his Friday appearance and has a 9.22 ERA, was sent to Triple-A Fresno.

Borque arrives after quality work in Harrisburg: a 1.33 ERA, 33 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings. This is his first time on the major league roster. Borque believes better fastball command led to his success and subsequent call-up.

Ross lost the bite on his slider despite showing flashes of being an effective reliever. He will be "stretched out" in Fresno, though he is unlikely to be ready when the Nationals need a spot start April 29 in Atlanta. Kyle McGowin pitched in place of injured Anibal Sanchez (left hamstring strain) Friday. He allowed five earned runs in four innings and is unlikely to receive another opportunity.

Sanchez threw 41 pitches in a simulated game Friday. He felt well Saturday. Sanchez is expected to throw a bullpen session Sunday and make a rehabilitation start Wednesday.


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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.