Nationals

Falcons still hurting after coming up shy of title

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Falcons still hurting after coming up shy of title

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Mike Smith walked into the room, rubbed his white hair and sat down at the podium.

His grim expression told it all.

The Atlanta Falcons were still hurting.

The season ended 10 yards shy of the Super Bowl, a stunning finale for a team that seemed poised to bring home the first championship in the franchise's 47-year history.

The Falcons had an early 17-point lead on San Francisco at home in the NFC championship game, but let it slip away. The 49ers preserved their 28-24 victory with a fourth-down stop at their own 10-yard line with just over a minute remaining.

``It's not fun to come to work after the outcome we had because of the finality of it, knowing we're not going on the practice field with this group of men ever again,'' Smith said Monday. ``But we will move on. We have to move on - quickly.''

For the Falcons, the offseason focus will likely be on upgrading the defense, figuring out a way to replace tight end Tony Gonzalez if the Hall of Famer-to-be goes through with plans to retire, and perhaps coming up with another front-line running back in case Michael Turner doesn't return.

Smith said it's too soon to discuss specifics, and he's always close to the vest with personnel decisions anyway. But he's confident that general manager Thomas Dimitroff will assemble another winning roster by the time the Falcons report to training camp.

``We need more playmakers across the board,'' Smith said. ``That's the goal each and every year, to add players. But with the (salary-cap) system we have in place, you can't do it all across the board.''

In the short term, the Falcons will keep an eye on quarterback Matt Ryan, who sustained a sprained left shoulder on the final drive of the NFC title game. He was able to stay in the contest, but threw two straight incompletions to snuff out Atlanta's hopes.

The injury won't require surgery, and Ryan should be fully recovered in three to four weeks, according to Smith, in plenty of time for the start of the offseason program in April.

Ryan dropped out of Sunday's Pro Bowl, but Smith said the quarterback would've been able to play - though certainly with some discomfort - if the Falcons had advanced to the Super Bowl, which is two weeks away. That turned out to be a moot point.

Even with the disappointment of the final game, Ryan became the team's undisputed leader and most irreplaceable player as the Falcons shifted from a physical running game to a wide-open passing attack. The fifth-year quarterback had a career season, completing nearly 69 percent of his passes for 4,719 yards and 32 touchdowns, with just 14 interceptions.

``We knew we were not going to be a team that has a running back that carries the ball 300 times,'' Smith said. ``We did a good job in that transition, and it starts with Matt.''

Roddy White has another big year (92 receptions, 1,351 yards, seven touchdowns) and second-year receiver Julio Jones (79 catches, 1,198 yards, 10 TDs) earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl. Jones closed the season with 11 catches, two touchdowns and a franchise playoff-record 182 yards receiving against the 49ers.

``Julio took a gigantic step in his maturation process along with Matt,'' Smith said. ``Both guys did a really nice job for us this year.''

But, in all likelihood, Ryan won't have his favorite receiver next season. The 36-year-old Gonzalez had an age-defying season (team-leading 93 receptions, 930 yards, eight TDs) but said all along this would likely be his final season. He sounded even more sure about retirement after the loss to San Francisco, referring to his 16-year career in the past tense.

``That's probably going to be the last time I wear that uniform, or football pads and cleats,'' Gonzalez said. ``I didn't want to take it off, to tell you the truth. But all good things come to an end.''

Smith is holding out hope that Gonzalez will reconsider, but doesn't plan to sit down with the tight end until the sting of the NFC championship loss wears off a bit. If he goes through with retirement, the Falcons will have a big hole to fill in their offense.

A couple of other key spots could be open, as well. Left tackle Sam Baker, a former first-round pick who made tremendous strides this season, is a potential unrestricted free agent. Turner has another year left on his deal, but his production tailed off dramatically as the Falcons put less reliance on the running game and gave more carries to backup Jacquizz Rodgers.

Turner is due to make $5.5 million next year, but the Falcons could free up $3 million in cap space if they let him go - which seems likely after he rushed for just 800 yards, averaging a paltry 3.6 per carry. Rodgers showed flashes of promise, but he's just 5-foot-6 and unlikely to take on the primary role in the running game.

The biggest moves of the offseason will likely come on the defensive side. Despite a multidimensional scheme installed by new coordinator Mike Nolan, the Falcons ranked 24th in yards allowed and struggled to shut down Seattle and San Francisco in the playoffs. Atlanta squandered a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter to the Seahawks, before rallying to win, and the Niners pulled off the biggest comeback in NFC championship game history.

Abraham led the team with 10 sacks; no one else had more than four. The Falcons could focus on defensive ends in free agency and the draft, or they could shift to a 3-4 scheme in which the outside linebackers get more of the rushing duties.

The biggest potential free agent on the defensive side is safety William Moore, who combined with Thomas DeCoud to give Atlanta a stout duo at the back end of the defense.

The Falcons cleared a major hurdle by winning a playoff game, their first postseason victory since Ryan, Smith and Dimitroff joined the team in 2008. But clearly, they were aiming higher.

``The next time when we get the chance,'' linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said, ``we've got to seize the moment.''

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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What to watch as Nats continue three-game series against Marlins

What to watch as Nats continue three-game series against Marlins

This is the Nationals’ first time in Miami this season, and the team finished with a 3-2 loss against the Marlins on Friday night. Here are a few things to look for as they enter the second game of the three-game series against the Floridians: 

  1. Friday night’s situational hitting was poor, NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas reported. The Nats left 10 runners on base in a 3-2 loss to the Miami Marlins.However, the Nationals’ offense has changed this season. This was exemplified in Friday’s series opener against the Marlins, in which both Adam Eaton and Victor Robles bunted to get hits.
  2. Eaton singled on a bunt in the first inning, eventually scoring on a Juan Soto RBI single, while Robles also reached base safely in the third following Eaton’s strategy and then stole a base. These creative plays helped get men on base, but again, more often than not they stayed there. Brian Dozier hit his second home run of the season in the seventh inning, a solo shot which gave the Nats their second and final run of the night. Dozier had a rough start to the season, and after Friday’s game, he has just two RBIs – both via solo homers. He has a batting average of .182, and he’s lost playing time to Howie Kendrick as the season has moved forward. Kendrick has a batting average of .477, the highest on the roster.
  3. Anthony Rendon continued his hit streak, extending it to 17 games with a double Friday. This is the longest hitting streak in the MLB this season, as well as the third baseman’s personal record. Within the organization, Rendon is chasing Hall-of-Famer Heinie Manush’s record, which stretched to 33 consecutive hits in 1933. Can he get another on Saturday?

 

Download the MyTeams app for coverage from NBC Sports Washington of the Nationals/Marlins game on Saturday. The game broadcast will be at 6:10 PM ET on 106.7 the Fan and MASN2. 

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Middling Anibal Sanchez and quiet bats do Nationals in against Marlins

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Middling Anibal Sanchez and quiet bats do Nationals in against Marlins

The Washington Nationals lost to the Miami Marlins, 3-2, Friday night to drop back to 9-9. Here are five observations from the game...

1. For all the offseason efforts at improvement, winning the National League East could come down to its one member which is trying to lose.

The four spenders each play Miami 19 times. By the end, going 11-8 against the in-the-tank Marlins may become a lamentable part of some team’s 2019 legacy. They either brought in a marquee pitcher, a generational outfielder or a former MVP third baseman. But they didn’t do enough against the Marlins, costing themselves the single, taut playoff spot that emerges from the division. It’s a viable storyline to project.

The Nationals took their first negative step toward that fate Friday in a 3-2 loss to the Marlins.

The situational hitting was poor -- Washington left 10 runners on base. The starting pitching was so-so -- Anibal Sanchez took the loss. The bullpen made one dire mistake -- Matt Grace’s first pitch hit left-hander Curtis Granderson with the bases loaded, forcing in the decisive run. The luck wasn’t great -- Caleb Smith, a quality left-hander marooned in Miami as the staff’s best pitcher, was on turn. Anticipate him representing Miami at the All-Star Game this season.

Brian Dozier homered. Mark that in the positive column. Joe Ross pitched two innings of quality relief. Put him next to Dozier.

Otherwise, the loss was sigh-worthy for a team trying to lurch forward, ending its up-and-down run of the first three weeks.

2. Another day, another hit for Anthony Rendon.

His sixth-inning double extended his hitting streak to 17 games, the longest in Major League Baseball this season. It’s also an extension of a personal best for Rendon.

Rendon’s 15 extra-base hits in 17 games is a Nationals/Expos record.

Who is he chasing for the organization’s hit streak record? Hall-of-Famer Heinie Manush, who hit safely in 33 consecutive games back in 1933.

Manush played for the Senators from 1930-1935. He hit .336 when he set the Washington record for consecutive game with a hit. He led the league in triples (17) and hits (221) that season.

Manush won a batting title in 1925 when he hit .378 for Detroit. Rendon is currently hitting .377 in the opening weeks of the season.

3. Sanchez was ok. Not great, not terrible. Just ok.

He lasted 5 ⅓ innings, allowed five hits, three earned runs, walked four and struck out six. His ERA is 4.91.

Regression for Sanchez this season was expected. His 2.83 ERA in Atlanta last season came strongly against the current of his previous pitching. Sanchez had a 5.67 ERA over the three prior seasons.

However, this has been a leap back, a full two runs in arrears of last season’s ERA. More troubling than the ERA is Sanchez’s path through lineups. His walk rate is up, his strikeout rate down.

As the season moves along, a comparison point for Sanchez will be the results of left-hander Wade Miley in Houston. The Nationals made a multi-year offer to Miley which was better than the offer he eventually settled on with the Astros, according to a source. Miley ended up signing for just one year in Houston because the free agent market went south, and Washington quickly pivoted to Sanchez. Keeping track of the two via ERA-plus (which accounts for park factors) during the season will be a fun exercise. Coming into Friday, Miley was by far the better pitcher in that department, 129 to 95. Another bloated outing from Sanchez only increased that gap.

4. The Nationals hoped to play a different brand of offense this season. They wanted to deploy more athleticism, using speed and contact to produce runs.

They took the idea to the extreme Friday. Adam Eaton and Victor Robles both bunted for hits. Eaton scored Washington’s first run after reaching base via his drag bunt up the first base line.

Robles stole second and ended up on third following his bunt in the same direction in the third inning.

Creative work at the plate for both.

5. Another bullpen twist hit Friday. Austen Williams was placed on the 10-day injured list because of a sprained right AC joint. Austin Adams was called up to replace him.

Williams had a disastrous outing Wednesday in the Nationals’ 9-6 win over the Giants. He allowed four earned runs -- on two home runs -- after the Nationals entered the ninth inning with a 9-2 lead. Williams’ inability to get an out in the ninth eventually forced closer Sean Doolittle into a game he never should have entered.

Doolittle’s entrance also complicated the current series in Miami. He pitched back-to-back games to close the series against San Francisco. His Friday availability was in question because of that, though the Nationals didn’t end up needing him.

The right-handed Adams, 27, joins the team from Triple-A Fresno. He struck out 12, allowed a hit and didn’t give up an earned run in his six innings with the Grizzlies.

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