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PHILADELPHIA — Trace McSorley knew something was brewing when he saw he had missed two phone calls: One from his quarterback's coach, James Urban, and the other from his head coach, John Harbaugh.
McSorley received word early Thursday morning that he would make his NFL starting debut later in the evening against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field with starter Lamar Jackson not suited up.
And with the biggest opportunity he’s had all preseason, McSorley delivered his best performance as a Raven. He finished 19-of-28 with 203 yards through the air, two passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown to lead the Ravens to a 26-15, lightning-shortened win.
It was McSorley’s first performance where he didn’t come off the bench this preseason.
“You’re really coming into it, if you’re not starting you kind of come in and you know when you’re going to be up so you’re getting the juices flowing, getting yourself ready,” McSorley said. “Tonight, as a team, we were able to come in and play really good offensively.”
His best performance of his pro career might have clinched him a spot on the 53-man roster, too. At the very least, it moved him closer to earning a spot when the rosters shrink on Aug. 31.
“I thought he played really well,” Harbaugh said. “I thought he was really poised, he made a lot of plays on the move, extended some plays and made them. He played really well.”
With normal backup quarterback Robert Griffin III sidelined with a right thumb injury, McSorley has been the team’s backup all preseason long.
In that role, he’s gotten reps he typically wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Thursday, he showed it’s paying off.
“Just being able to get in and really see things, really be there live, it’s a big difference than watching the film or sitting back and getting the mental reps,” McSorley said. “Once you get in there, see it live, it’s different. It’s been extremely beneficial getting all these reps.”
Aided by the return of Marquise Brown, the Ravens offense scored 23 points in the second quarter — with three touchdowns from McSorley — to pull ahead for a 26-0 lead.
McSorley’s best play came when he rainbowed the left sideline and found Michael Floyd in the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown pass that found the wide receiver right on the money. That followed his toughest effort of the night, a four-yard scramble where he found a way to get his right arm, and the football, over the goal line for a touchdown.
His other touchdown came on a seven-yard fade route to Jaleel Scott to put the Ravens up four possessions.
Still, despite his strong performance, he deflected individual praise and was more focused on how the offense ran as a whole.
“I think so far, I think this is probably… we made some progress from the first couple games,” McSorley said. “That’s just kind of been the goal from week one to week two, from week two to week three. I think that’s something that coach Harbaugh talks about, I think we were able to do that as an offense again tonight.”
With Jackson and Griffin not expected to play next week in Washington for the team’s fourth and final preseason game, the spotlight will once again be on McSorley, as he’ll make his final case to be on the roster.
Even though he looks like a safe bet to make the team now, especially with the special teams reps he’s received in practice, nothing is confirmed for the former Penn State quarterback.
But Thursday’s performance, one where he played the best football of his professional career, will go a long way toward ensuring he’s on the 53-man roster when the regular season begins.
“He did amazing,” running back Justice Hill said. “He got, what, three touchdowns? That’s crazy. And he only played a half.”
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PITTSBURGH -- Everyone wanted Max Scherzer back on the mound. He’s arguably the best pitcher in baseball, undoubtedly a key in the National League pennant race, a preeminent figure on the Nationals. And, he talks a lot.
“I think a lot of guys are ready to get him out of the dugout,” Patrick Corbin said Wednesday. “He’s kind of getting on nerves. He’s taking pre-workout [drinks] in games he’s not even playing. That’s just him. No, we’re excited. He’s the best in the game.”
He was back, finally, Thursday in Pittsburgh. Scherzer threw a 95-mph fastball at 7:29 p.m. At 8:49 p.m., Wander Suero jogged in from the bullpen because Scherzer had finished for the night. Four innings, 71 pitches, 48 strikes, one earned run. Scherzer was effective, not dominant. He’s in full reboot mode following two simulation games and being almost a month out from his previous start.
“Just wanted to come out here, not really empty the tank [Thursday] and just pitch,” Scherzer said. “I can’t get hurt again. That’s just the reality of this. Got out here, was able to go four innings and get a good feel for this of getting back in there. Just getting back in the game action because now it’s real. You can simulate games all you want, but simulated games aren’t real.”
What matters is that he’s back. Scherzer’s first of two tuneups -- he faces Baltimore next on Aug. 28 after dealing with the hapless Pirates -- yield to huge September outings. The Mets. The Braves -- twice. The Phillies. Tight races, big nights, why he makes $210 million. He’s thought about that, “in some ways.”
“But right now I’m living start to start,” Scherzer said. “I’m living really day-by-day of what I can and can’t do and trying to communicate with the trainers and strength coaches of, hey, what exercises can we do to get back out there and get this thing as strong as possible. [Thursday] was a good step. I’ve got a lot more work in front of me.”
He’s been good, but not a powerhouse in the postseason for the Nationals. His 3.72 ERA reflects that. Game 5 against the Cubs in 2017 is the last time Scherzer took a mound in the playoffs. He gave up the lead on three hits, two earned runs and a strikeout. He allowed just one earned run in his start earlier in the series. The loss cost Dusty Baker his job. It also installed another nasty Game 5 chapter in the Nationals’ short existence.
His nearest shot at redemption could well ride on what he does the rest of the way. Scherzer will still have a limit on his pitch count against Baltimore. He should be loose by his third start -- with the ever-reaching caveat, all is dependent on how he feels the day after an outing.
"Hopefully [Friday], he wakes up, he's well-recovered and we move forward," Davey Martinez said.
Scherzer’s second stint on the injured list could cost him a chance at another Cy Young Award. He remains top-five in ERA, batting average against, WHIP, strikeouts, opponent OPS and more. He is No. 1 -- by far -- in fWAR despite the time missed. Hyun-Jin Ryu is fifth in that category.
And, the time away didn’t temper his work on the bases. Scherzer beat out a double play in the second inning, then went first to third on a Trea Turner double. He later picked up a single to right field.
Scherzer has also considered the idea he may need to be different the remainder of the season. His velocity was strong against the Pirates during the Nationals’ 7-1 win. But, that’s never been the problem during this process. Almost half of his pitches against Pittsburgh were four-seam fastballs. They averaged 94.5 mph.
It’s the other stuff. Throwing a slider with everything he has. Snapping curveballs and managing changeups. Scherzer was pitching more than throwing with pure might in his first start back.
He hopes to feel well Friday morning after sleeping as much as possible on the flight to Chicago, then more once the team lands. Afterward, he’s back in the weight room to strengthen the area around his rhomboid muscle. His pitch count will go up next time. The ability to “empty the tank” will, ideally, follow. As will a postseason appearance -- maybe.
“This is a good start, but I’m not out of the woods,” Scherzer said.
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