Nationals

Div. II title game an escape for VSU QB Cochran

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Div. II title game an escape for VSU QB Cochran

Valdosta State quarterback Cayden Cochran and his family have had to be incredibly resilient heading into the Division II national championship game.

The Cochrans have lost two homes in the past 18 months.

Valdosta State will play Winston-Salem State in Saturday's Division II national championship game in Florence, Ala. The game will come only six days after Cochran's family home in Cashion, Okla., was destroyed by a fire. The loss is especially painful because the family's previous home was leveled by a tornado in May 2011.

Cochran said the family crisis is especially difficult when his mind is not on football.

``It's sort of difficult when things die down,'' Cochran said in a telephone interview. ``When I'm trying to go to sleep, it's tough to grasp. I'm calling my parents, calling my brothers, just to see where they're at, if they're all together, where they're staying that night.''

Sadly, this is not a new dilemma for the family. Sunday's fire destroyed the longtime family home where Cochran's father, Chris, lived as a child. Chris Cochran said his family was using the home on a temporary basis following last year's tornado.

Chris Cochran said he's looking for a temporary furnished home for his family as work continues on a new home. He said the new home should be ready in a few months.

While Cayden Cochran worries about his family, including three younger brothers, he's trying to keep his focus on the big game.

``He's hurting but he's come out and he looks like he's tried to put it in the back of his mind and tried to prepare just like he would every week,'' said Valdosta State coach David Dean.

``I'm really proud of him. He's a pretty tough and resilient kid. You feel for him but he doesn't want you to feel sorry for him. He's going to come out and give this football team everything he's got.''

Cashion was a walk-on at Oklahoma when the tornado struck his hometown on May 24, 2011.

``It was the tornado coming through that kind of made me step back and realize I needed to get out of Oklahoma, where I'm paying all this money to go to school,'' Cochran said. ``I needed to look for a scholarship to get some money to help with school, to continue to do what I love and help out my family.''

That search led Cochran to Valdosta State.

``It's kind of weird,'' said Chris Cochran. ``That happened and he was offered scholarship there soon after that. That took our mind off everything then.''

Chris Cochran said he planned to leave Wednesday for the long drive to Alabama.

``The game and the excitement and the opportunity is just keeping us focused toward that and keeping everything else off our mind,'' said the elder Cochran. ``We're just excited and happy for him.

``We're safe and nobody lost their life and we know things can be replaced. We're just excited to be a part of what's going on right now.''

Chris Cochran said there will be about 40 friends and family members from Cashion, which has a population of about 800, at the game.

That's no surprise to Cayden Cochran.

``The town we live in is a very small town and they're great people,'' he said. ``There are people calling my parents, saying `Hey, let the kids stay with us tonight.' I called my mom and she said parents picked up my little brothers in middle school to go shopping for winter clothes because it's pretty cold in Oklahoma right now.

``It's just that kind of stuff that makes you feel really good, with me being far away from home, that there's people like that in my hometown.''

Cochran said his parents deflect his questions about how they are coping with another crisis.

``Every time I ask about them, they tell me `Don't worry about us,''' Cayden said. ``They say `We're excited about coming to Florence and watching you play. That's all we've ever wanted, for you to succeed.' That's what they tell me, so they put me at ease a little bit with that, just knowing they're excited.

``I'm glad they have something to look forward to and be excited about because that home was such a big part of all of our lives. It's where my dad grew up and where I spent almost every day as a kid. So it's tough, but I think football, you see it time and time again, it's used as an outlet to put some emotion into something else.''

Valdosta State (11-2) will play for its third national championship. The Blazers won Division II titles in 2004 and 2007.

Cochran passed for 278 yards and two touchdowns while also running for two touchdowns in last week's 35-19 semifinal win at Minnesota State-Mankato.

The junior has passed for 2,601 yards with 25 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He has 336 yards rushing with nine touchdowns.

Chris Cochran said he expects his son to funnel his emotions into the game.

``I'm thinking he'll use it as motivation,'' said the elder Cochran. ``That's just the way he is. He thinks things happen for a reason and he's just happy we weren't there.

``I bet he has a great game. That's just what he does. He's always been that kind of kid. He's just a great leader and when other things are falling apart, people have always looked to him.''

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Nationals to ‘reassess’ Sean Doolittle’s role after another poor outing

Nationals to ‘reassess’ Sean Doolittle’s role after another poor outing

WASHINGTON -- Sean Doolittle is four appearances into what has become a mess.

Finding a path to outs is problematic. He’s tried with a downtrodden fastball or still-to-be-refined off-speed pitches. Both failed him again Saturday when the Orioles hit back-to-back home runs against Doolittle in the eighth inning. The Nationals led 3-0 when he entered. They led 3-2 when he left after recording just one out, a strikeout of Chris Davis, in his latest-confidence sapping appearance.

Daniel Hudson replaced Doolittle. He allowed a three-run home run to Anthony Santander. That put Baltimore in front, 5-3, the score the Nationals would lose by. They are 4-7.

Doolittle’s prior struggles were a large part of Friday’s discussion between reporters and Davey Martinez before the weekend series began. The Nationals trimmed their roster Thursday from 30 to the mandatory 28, which meant reliever James Bourque was sent to the alternate training site in Fredericksburg and utilityman Emilio Bonifácio was designated for assignment. Martinez was asked Friday if they ever considered sending Doolittle to the alternate training site. The question felt a bit hyperbolic, but not outlandish, and was anchored in the idea it would give Doolittle a full restart to get right. Martinez said it was not considered.

“For me, he’s part of the core group here,” Martinez said. “We want him here. I’ve got all the confidence in the world in him. I know pitching coach Paul [Menhart] does as well. And we need him. When that little thing clicks, he’s going to be fine. We’ve got to keep running him out there. We’ve got to find spots to put him in the game. But I really believe it will click and he’ll be right back to where he used to be.”

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They are reassessing his path forward a day later.

“Like I said before, we need Doo,” Martinez said Saturday. “I know his velo is down. We’re going to have to reevaluate our situation with him. I’m going to talk to him here in a little while and go from there.

“I’ve said it before: here’s a guy that was a premier closer for us and did well. Has pitched in the highest-leverage situations in the game. I’m not going to give up on him. Going to work to figure it out. We’re going to work it out. If I have to pitch him in very low-, low-leverage situations, then we’ll do that. But we’ve got to figure something out for him. We need him. He’s a big part of this team.”

Doolittle’s spot Saturday was against the lower half of the Baltimore lineup. Tanner Rainey was used in the seventh inning to handle the Nos. 3-4-5 hitters in the Orioles lineup. He zipped through them.

Doolittle’s first pitch was 89 mph. His second was 90 mph. Pinch-hitter Pat Valaika sent his third pitch -- labeled a “splitter” but really just changeup -- out of the park. The speed gap between Doolittle’s opening fastball and his changeup was less than eight mph. The action on both is insufficient, in particular his wilted fastball, a pitch Doolittle’s success is anchored in.

A standard pitching line is that everything works off the fastball. Command that, the alternatives become all the more potent, the pitching that much easier. It’s a general truth.

In Doolittle’s case, it’s an emphatic rule. He’s thrown the pitch 88 percent of the time during his nine-plus seasons in the major leagues. If it doesn’t work, he doesn’t work.

The Nationals have tried to get him to use his legs more. He’s tried, too. To this point, the alterations from a pseudo-slide step to a full kick and delivery has not moved the radar gun. Doolittle’s reduced velocity was first attributed to what became a trend across the league. Speed of pitches was down and assumed to return. It has not for Doolittle. Not yet. He’s stumped as to why.

“It’s just been incredibly frustrating,” Doolittle said. “Physically, I feel really good. My knee feels strong. My arm feels good. Mechanically, I might not be exactly where I want to be, but....I feel, I feel, physically like the ball should be coming out a lot harder than 89, 90. It should have some life on it. I should be able to get through an inning and it just hasn’t come together.”

He rattled off the names of those pitching well from the bullpen, then lamented how his failures make their job more difficult and generally let the team down. Doolittle at times looked down, up and off to the side postgame when he explained his trials over a Zoom call. His conversation with Martinez was still to come. That's definite. When -- or how well -- he will pitch next is not.

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Five-run eighth, Santander’s blast, power Orioles to impressive comeback win over the Nationals

Five-run eighth, Santander’s blast, power Orioles to impressive comeback win over the Nationals

For seven innings Saturday night, the Orioles looked like they’d reverted to the team that was swept in four-straight games by the Marlins. 

The pitching was solid, but a defensive error and a complete lack of hitting put the Orioles down by three against the Nationals with just six outs to play with. 

Then in the eighth, two solo home runs from Pat Valaika and Pedro Severino preceded an 11-pitch walk to Austin Hays, then a single by Hanser Alberto to set the table for Anthony Santander. 

Santander hit one just over the wall in left field to give the Orioles a 5-3 lead, a score they’d eventually win by, in their second-straight win at Nationals Park over the defending champs. 

“I thought we ran into a really good starter tonight,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “We just didn’t have a lot of good swings on Voth, I thought he was really on his game and mixed pitches very well. Our pitchers did a great job of keeping us in the game and allowing us to come back.

The five-run eighth inning was the first sign of true life from the team’s offense Saturday, which appeared to have gone cold after a dominating 11-0 win over the Nationals on Friday.

But Santander’s blast to left, the third home run of the inning, was the difference. 

“I just think our guys have gotten better,” Hyde said. “It’s pretty obvious, knock on wood, that our bullpen guys have improved. I think that you’re seeing Severino, (Rio) Ruiz, Alberto, (Renato) Nuny (Nunez), these guys have improved. I just think our guys that were here last year, we did a nice job of getting them better.”

The Orioles got a decent start out of Thomas Eshelman, who went four innings, allowed five hits and two earned runs with no walks and two strikeouts. But the offense couldn’t solve Nationals’ starter Austin Voth, who allowed just two hits in five innings. 

But when the Nationals turned the game over to Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson in the eighth, the game unraveled. 

Doolittle recorded just one out — a strikeout of Chris Davis — but allowed two solo home runs. Hudson allowed two hits, a critical walk and three earned runs after Santander’s blast and in a matter of minutes, the Nationals’ lead was evaporated. 

“I was screaming to get up and stay fair,” Hyde said of Santander’s home run. “I was hearing myself trying to get that ball to stretch.”

It was another example of the Orioles’ unique season they’ve had to this point, characterized by embarrassing losses and surprising and dominating wins. 

After a blowout loss on Opening Day to the Red Sox, the Orioles rebounded for two-straight wins to take the series. After two-straight losses to the Yankees, they swept the Rays in such a fashion that left the door open to potential playoff contention this season. They followed that up with a four-game sweep to the Marlins, a team that had been quarantined for a week-and-a-half, in three performances with a severe lack of offense. 

Now, they’ve beaten the defending champions in two-straight games and are .500 nearly 25 percent of the way through the season. 

Through 14 games of the 2020 season, the Orioles are winning games they didn’t a year ago.

“This season, I think that we have the mentality of, ‘I know we can,’” Eshelman said. “I think that we have a different kind of aspect in certain situations. A lot of guys last year, I got here throughout the middle of the year, but a lot of guys are new here. We were maybe pressing a little bit, but everybody has that comfortability level with each other now. We play as a team, especially this year. We kind of have that pat on the butt like, ‘Yeah, that can happen.’”

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