Nationals

Elway's latest comeback comes from front office

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Elway's latest comeback comes from front office

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) The craggy lines in his face cut a little deeper. That trademark hitch in his step is a bit more pronounced.

These days, when John Elway scans the field looking to make the perfect move for the Broncos, he is viewing not from under center but from a second-floor office that overlooks the practice field.

At 52, the man who engineered The Drive and so many other great comebacks during a Hall of Fame career is producing yet another one - maybe the most important he's been part of. He is resurrecting Pat Bowlen's franchise, turning it from an out-of-touch, losing laughingstock back into a fan-friendly Super Bowl contender.

Whether the Broncos make it to New Orleans or not this season, Elway has already accomplished the first mission simply by coming back to run Denver's front office.

``The first order of business, in my mind, was to connect back to our fans,'' he told The Associated Press in an interview from his office, a jar of jelly beans on the desk, a magnetic Broncos depth chart hanging on the wall.

On Saturday, the Broncos play Baltimore in the AFC divisional round. They are on an 11-game winning streak and favored to go to the Super Bowl for the first time since Elway hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the 1998 season.

``Somehow, we lost that connection,'' Elway said. ``At least, it had never been like that since I'd been here. The disconnect was there, you could feel it. The fans didn't feel like they were part of the organization.''

Though it was Denver's magical 1977 ``Orange Crush'' Super Bowl team that sparked Broncomania, it was Elway's arrival six seasons later that turned the relationship between team and fans into a much more personal affair. As the best player coming out of college, Elway was headed to the Baltimore Colts, who held the first pick in the draft. He balked, and the impression was he would end up only where he wanted to go.

The Broncos came up with the goods for a trade and Elway said `yes' to Denver.

Over the next 16 years - including 47 game-saving drives, three Super Bowl losses, countless other heartbreaks and close calls and, then, finally, two titles - No. 7 and the city of Denver became interconnected. Elway chose Denver. Denver loved him back.

As the era of free agency began and the game became more of a business, Elway was a Bronco all the way, one of those increasingly rare instances of a player who spent his entire career with one team.

And after he rode off into the sunset following the second title, things weren't quite the same for the team or the player.

``I wanted to see how it would be when I got away from it for a while,'' Elway said.

He bought car dealerships, got into the restaurant business. He enjoyed success with both, but had trouble staying away from his first love, the game he learned under the guiding hand of his father, Jack, a longtime college head coach before becoming a scout for the Broncos in the 1990s.

``I'm used to having a scoreboard,'' Elway said, ``and there's a scoreboard in football every week.''

He bought a stake in Denver's Arena League team, which gave him some much-needed practice in how to be involved in football without being on the field.

``That was really hard for me the first two or three years, not being able to get my hands on the ball,'' he said.

But there was no more helpless feeling than being a Broncos alum with no way to help. From afar, Elway watched as his old team went on a slow, steady decline - at the low point, a disgrace with a 4-12 record.

Every quarterback that came through the facility dealt with the same theme: He was playing John Elway's old position. But there would never be another Elway. All the quarterbacks, one way or another, proved that mantra correct.

It reached a critical point when the Broncos hired Josh McDaniels as head coach and McDaniels identified himself as the only NFL personnel man who felt Tim Tebow was worth a first-round draft pick.

The 2010 season in Denver was marred by losing and the McDaniels videotaping scandal. But the biggest question hovering over this franchise was why McDaniels drafted Tebow if he didn't want to play him? McDaniels never really answered that one.

And while the Broncos never saw their string of consecutive sellouts, dating to 1970, jeopardized, the number of empty seats at the stadium, the lustiness of the boos from the fans who did attend, and the discontent that grew on the radio shows and internet sites were impossible to ignore.

``Certainly, there was the idea out there that they not only had to restore themselves competitively, but their image needed massive repair work,'' said Sandy Clough, a longtime veteran of Denver sports talk radio.

In stepped Elway, who quickly established a direct line with fans through the team website and a Twitter account.

He also was quick to point out two facts:

-He was smart enough to know what he didn't know

-The only acceptable goal for the Broncos was winning the Super Bowl.

The second part used to go unsaid in Denver but had gotten lost somewhere amid the turmoil.

Shortly after his hiring, on Jan. 5, 2011, a series of dominoes started falling.

Elway hired coach John Fox, who had already shown his penchant for turnarounds in Carolina.

After a 1-4 start in 2011, Fox put Tebow in the lineup and, with a mix of guts, comebacks and luck, Tebow guided the Broncos to the playoffs, albeit with an 8-8 record.

Elway acknowledged how remarkable Tebow's performances were, but steadfastly refused to anoint him as the quarterback of the future.

A surgically repaired Peyton Manning became available and Elway put the Broncos in the mix to sign him. Then he moved Denver to the front by finding an instant connection with the veteran quarterback.

After signing Manning, Elway made the corresponding decision to part with Tebow - a tough decision, but medicine Tebow fans could swallow more easily knowing who it was coming from.

``The revisionist history is that, `Oh, anybody could've done that,''' Clough said. ``I don't agree that anybody could've done that. I think only he could've pulled that off the way he did it. He's the only guy who could've withstood the kind of criticism and wrath ... for deigning to be at all critical of Tebow.''

Elway's deft handling of the Manning-Tebow maneuver has, all by itself, made him a top candidate for executive of the year in the NFL. It has also overshadowed other moves that have played big parts in Denver's quick return to competitiveness. His first move was keeping veteran cornerback Champ Bailey, then a free agent. He also drafted Von Miller, who has 29 1/2 sacks over his first two years.

This season, Elway signed veterans Keith Brooking, Dan Koppen, Trindon Holliday, Brandon Stokley, Jim Leonhard - all important cogs in a 13-3 team.

``He'd been a part of a lot of championship teams, a lot of Super Bowl teams and winners, so he understands what a football player looks like,'' Fox said.

Elway also understands what a city looks like when it loves its football team - and what it looks like when it doesn't.

These days, the love is back, courtesy of No. 7, of course.

``The goal here, with Pat Bowlen, has always been that he wants a Super Bowl champion,'' Elway said. ``What everyone needed to remember is that that's still the goal.''

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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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