Nationals

Irish trying to turn USC rivalry their way

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Irish trying to turn USC rivalry their way

The Notre Dame-USC rivalry has been defined by dominance over the last four decades. Two of college football's most celebrated teams have alternated long runs of success in the series that have coincided with the ups and downs of the programs.

When the Fighting Irish and Trojans meet for the 84th time on Saturday in the Los Angeles Coliseum, Notre Dame will be playing for a spot in the national championship while USC will be trying to salvage a disappointing season.

The Irish appear primed to turn the rivalry back in their direction after a decade of USC ownership.

During Southern California's most recent dynasty, coach Pete Carroll's Trojans reeled off eight straight victories against the Irish from 2002-09, the longest winning streak by USC in the series.

In 2010, Brian Kelly's first season as Notre Dame coach, the Irish snapped that streak, 20-16, with the help of a memorable dropped pass that would have been a sure touchdown. USC came right back and won last season in South Bend, Ind., 31-17, to make it nine out of 10.

``Well, it's not a great rivalry right now,'' Kelly said this week. ``We haven't won enough games. They've had the upper hand on this. We need to make this a rivalry.''

From the mid-80s through the mid-90s, it was USC that was trying to make it a rivalry. As USC struggled to hold its place among the elite programs in college football, the Irish often contended for national titles under Lou Holtz and went 12-0-1 against the Trojans.

That number helps explain the relatively short tenures of coaches Ted Tollner (1983-86) and Larry Smith (1987-92) at USC.

Lane Kiffin is hoping his USC career is more like Carroll's than Smith's, but it has certainly been a tough season for the Trojans. They started the season, their first after a two-year, NCAA-imposed postseason ban, ranked No. 1, and with the presumptive Heisman Trophy front-runner in senior star quarterback Matt Barkley.

Maybe expectations were too high for a team that lacked depth and had some question marks on both lines. But few would have predicted that USC would head into its finale against Notre Dame 7-4 and unranked. Even more startling is that it's Notre Dame that will take the field Saturday as the unbeaten No. 1 team in the country, two victories from its first national championship since 1988.

The Fighting Irish started the season unranked. The last team to start out of the rankings and reach No. 1 was Missouri in 2007. The Tigers lost their final game before the bowls, falling to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, and lost a chance to play for the national title.

But maybe we shouldn't be so surprised about the Irish. Holtz, Dan Devine, Ara Parseghian and Frank Leahy all won national championships in their third season as Notre Dame coach, all beating USC along the way.

The picks:

THURSDAY

TCU (plus 7) at No. 18 Texas

Old Southwest Conference rivals, Frogs beat Horns once from 1968-95. ... TEXAS 32-27.

FRIDAY

No. 8 LSU (minus 12) at Arkansas

Before last year's big LSU victory, previous six meetings were one-score games. ... LSU 35-21.

No. 17 Nebraska (minus 14 1/2) at Iowa

Huskers clinch spot in Big Ten championship game with victory or Michigan loss. ... NEBRASKA 28-17.

Ohio (plus 10 1/2) at No. 23 Kent State

Golden Flashes already have MAC East title clinched. ... KENT STATE 34-27.

No. 24 Northern Illinois (minus 20) at Eastern Michigan

Huskies have MAC West title clinched. ... NORTHERN ILLINOIS 41-14.

SATURDAY

No. 1 Notre Dame (minus 7) at Southern California

USC QB Max Wittek tries to carve out spot in Trojans history in first start. ... NOTRE DAME 24-14.

Auburn (plus 31 1/2) at No. 2 Alabama

Nick Saban is merciful. ... ALABAMA 35-0.

Georgia Tech (plus 13) at No. 3 Georgia

SEC title game is locked up, but this is to keep Bulldogs' national championship hopes alive. ... GEORGIA 51-28.

No. 20 Michigan (plus 3 1/2) at No. 4 Ohio State

Perfection on line for Buckeyes in Urban Meyer's first game against Michigan. ... OHIO STATE 27-20.

No. 5 Oregon (minus 9 1/2) at No. 16 Oregon State

Ducks need to win and have UCLA beat Stanford to reach Pac-12 title game. ... OREGON 45-24.

No. 6 Florida (plus 8) at No. 10 Florida State

Both teams still in national title hunt. ... FLORIDA STATE 17-13.

Missouri (plus 22) at No. 9 Texas A&M

Last Heisman showcase for Johnny Football. ... TEXAS A&M 45-21.

No. 11 Stanford (minus 1 1/2) at No. 15 UCLA

Cardinal can clinch Pac-12 North with victory, set up rematch with Bruins in title game. ... UCLA 27-24.

UPSET SPECIAL

No. 13 South Carolina (plus 4) at No. 12 Clemson

Tigers could all but lock up BCS at-large bid. ... SOUTH CAROLINA 38-31.

BEST BET

No. 22 Oklahoma State (plus 7) at No. 14 Oklahoma

Big 12 title still a possibility for Sooners. ... OKLAHOMA 38-24.

UConn (plus 12) at No. 19 Louisville

Cardinals a win away from BCS-bid showdown at Rutgers ... LOUISVILLE 28-13.

No. 21 Rutgers (plus 2) at Pittsburgh

No easy games for Scarlet Knights ... RUTGERS 20-17.

No. 25 Mississippi State (plus 1) at Mississippi

Bulldogs have won three straight Egg Bowls ... OLE MISS 28-24.

Idaho (plus 39) at No. 25 Utah State

Took a while for everyone to realize it, but Aggies are really good. ... UTAH STATE 48-7.

Last week's record: 15-6 (straight); 5-9 (vs. points)

Season record: 197-43 (straight); 110-104 (vs. points)

Best bets: 5-7.

Upset specials: 7-5.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoap

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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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