Nationals

Golf's guardians want long putters to go belly-up

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Golf's guardians want long putters to go belly-up

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) Brace yourself - just not your putter.

In a proposal that would affect major champions as well as amateurs at their local clubs, the guardians of the 600-year-old sport want to write a new rule that would outlaw a putting stroke they fear is taking too much skill out of the game.

The U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club said Wednesday they are not banning the belly putter or the longer ``broom-handle'' putters - only the way they are used. The proposed rule would prohibit golfers at all levels from anchoring a club against their bodies while making a stroke.

The rule would not take effect until 2016.

``We believe a player should hold the club away from his body and swing it freely,'' USGA executive director Mike Davis said. ``Golf is a game of skill and challenge, and we think that's an important part of it.''

Three of the last five major champions, starting with Keegan Bradley at the 2011 PGA Championship, used a belly putter.

What concerned the governing bodies, however, was an increasing number of players who were turning to the long putters because they saw it as an advantage, not as a last resort to cure their putting woes.

``Anchored strokes have very rapidly become the preferred option for a growing number of players, and this has caused us to review these strokes and their impact on the game,'' R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said. ``Our conclusion is that anchored strokes threaten to supplant traditional strokes, which with all their frailties are integral to the longstanding character of our sport.''

Players could still use a broom-handle or belly putter - as long as it not pressed against their body to create the effect of a hinge.

The R&A and USGA now offer a three-month period for open comment on the proposal before they approve it. But this already is shaping up to be a divisive issue, from industry leaders worried about the growth of golf to players who have been using these putters for years.

``Any competitive player likes to have an extra advantage,'' Matt Kuchar said. ``I think you're going find anyone using the short putter is glad, and anyone using the belly putter or long putter is not happy.''

Kuchar used a mid-length putter that rested against his left arm when he won The Players Championship. That style is OK.

Fred Couples, the 53-year-old former Masters champion, uses a belly putter, though it rests against his stomach - it is not anchored - and the end of the club moves freely. He was not sure if that would be allowed, and he wasn't sure golf needed such a rule anyway. Couples' argument is that if the anchored stroke was that much of an advantage, everyone would be using it.

None of the top 20 players on the PGA Tour's most reliable putting statistic used an anchored putting stroke.

``In my opinion, they haven't screwed up golf yet, and I don't think this will screw it up,'' Couples said. ``But I feel bad for Keegan Bradley, because I'll tell you what: If they banned it tomorrow and we played a tournament, I think I'll be a better player than Keegan. And I don't think that's fair.''

Bradley and U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, who both use a belly putter, had said they would go along with the new rule, though they weren't happy about it. Simpson already has been working with a conventional putter. Bradley used a regular putter until he got to college.

``That doesn't take away from the last five years of hours of practice I've put in'' on the belly putter, he said. ``I'm going to really in the next couple of years figure out a way that's best for me to putt.''

Carl Pettersson of Sweden and Tim Clark of South Africa have used broom-handle putters all their careers, and they have talked about a possible legal recourse. Neither could be reached for comment. Pettersson was in South Africa for the Nedbank Challenge and did not return a phone call.

Davis said there was no concern about a lawsuit.

``We need to do what we think is right,'' Davis said. ``And shame on us if we are scared of litigation for doing the right thing.''

Even some of those who support a ban on the anchored stroke - a group that includes Tiger Woods - wonder what took the governing bodies so long. Such putting strokes date as far back as the 1930s, and they first gained some measure of notoriety when Orville Moody won the 1989 U.S. Senior Open with a long putter held against his chest. Paul Azinger won the 2000 Sony Open with a putter he pressed into his belly.

But the longer putters got serious attention when majors were won last year - by Bradley at the PGA, followed by Simpson at the U.S. Open. Then, Ernie Els won the British Open this year.

Adding to the attention was Guan Tianlang, the 14-year-old from China who used a belly putter this month when he won the Asia Pacific Amateur, which earned him a spot in the Masters. He will be the youngest player ever at Augusta National. Guan started using the belly putter about six months before his big win.

Even so, Dawson and Davis said the catalyst for a new rule was not who was winning tournaments, but the number of players switching to that style of putting.

Their research showed no more than 4 percent of players on the PGA Tour used the clubs for several years. It went to 6 percent in 2006, and then to 11 percent in 2011 and to 15 percent this year, with some events having as much as 25 percent of the players using the long clubs.

There was no empirical data to suggest a long putter made golf easier, and they made it clear that the proposed rule was not about performance.

``This is about defining the game and defining what is a stroke in golf,'' Dawson said.

Why now?

Davis said it was one thing for a few players who use a long putter because they struggled on the greens or had health issues. What changed was the spike in number of players using the putters, as well as instructors believing it was a better way to putt.

``It was this recent increase, it was this recent advocacy of players, instructors, to move toward the anchored stroke that really got us to the point where we said, `We need to act in the best interests of the game moving forward,''' Davis said. ``This is all about the future of the game. It's about us defining the game, defining a stroke, clarifying a very controversial and divisive situation.''

The penalty for anchoring the club would be loss of hole in match play and a two-stroke penalty in stroke play.

The PGA Tour, European Tour and LPGA Tour said it would evaluate the proposed rule with its players. The PGA Tour has a mandatory players' meeting in San Diego at the end of January, which former U.S. Amateur champion Colt Knost tweeted would be a lively session. Knost uses a belly putter.

The PGA of America said it was concerned that such a ban would drive people from the game.

``As our mission is to grow the game ... we are asking them to seriously consider the impact this proposed ban may have on people's enjoyment of the game and the overall growth of the game,'' PGA president Ted Bishop said.

Woods walked quickly by reporters after his pro-am round at the World Challenge, saying only, ``I think it's a good one,'' when asked about the new rule. On Tuesday, he said using an anchored stroke takes away from nerves in the hands.

``I just believe that the art of putting is swinging the club and controlling nerves,'' Woods said Tuesday. ``And having it as a fixed point, as I was saying all year, is something that's not in the traditions of the game. We swing all other 13 clubs. I think the putter should be the same.''

Jack Nicklaus recalls that croquet-style putting was banned decades ago and golf moved on. Even though far more golfers use long putters, he expects the same outcome.

``They'll all learn to adjust,'' Nicklaus told the Golf Channel. ``Like anything else, they'll get used to it and get over it. ... We've had changes with balls, wood heads, grooves, all kinds of changes. Players have adjusted to those and they'll adjust to this.''

Davis, meanwhile, did not accept the premise that golf would lose even greater participation by taking away the anchored putting stroke. He even cited a PGA of America program that showed fewer people were playing because of the expense and time.

``Difficulty is way down the list,'' he said. ``And anchoring would only be a very, very small part of that.''

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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.

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