Nationals

Late-season surge has Cowboys in control of fate

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Late-season surge has Cowboys in control of fate

IRVING, Texas (AP) Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones can't help but think about the New York Giants going from 7-7 to a Super Bowl title last season.

It probably wouldn't hurt to remind him that the Green Bay Packers had a defense that overcame injuries and won a championship a year earlier - at his stadium, no less.

``You can legitimately look at how the Giants played last year, what they did at the end of the year and how they took it all the way,'' Jones said after Dallas beat the Steelers in front of thousands of Terrible Towel-waving fans at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday. ``And that's not unrealistic to think that that can happen to you.''

Maybe Jones was a little giddy after the Cowboys beat Pittsburgh 27-24 in overtime for their third straight win.

Dallas is tied for first in the NFC East after winning three straight games and five of six, and for the first time in weeks doesn't need help to reach the playoffs.

The Cowboys (8-6) are in if they beat New Orleans on Sunday at home and win at Washington in two weeks.

The game against the Redskins could end up looking a lot like last season's finale, when the Giants beat the Cowboys in New Jersey with a playoff berth on the line.

The Green Bay connection is even more striking. The Cowboys have lost about as many defenders as the Packers did when they beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl after the 2010 season.

Four Dallas starters are on injured reserve, and a fifth - defensive tackle Jay Ratliff - won't play again in the regular season after sports hernia surgery. Nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick (left hand and wrist) is out for the season as well, and rookie starter Morris Claiborne missed the Pittsburgh game with a concussion. Claiborne said Monday he thought he would play against the Saints (6-8).

Ratliff's backup, Josh Brent, won't return this season following his arrest on an intoxication manslaughter charge in the one-car accident that killed teammate and close friend Jerry Brown.

Yet somehow, the Cowboys keep winning, with plenty of help from the defense. Brandon Carr set up a touchdown with an interception in a 20-19 win at Cincinnati the day after the crash that killed Brown.

Dallas attended a private memorial service for Brown last Tuesday, then Carr won the Pittsburgh game by intercepting Ben Roethlisberger on the second play of overtime and returning it to the Steelers 1.

Dan Bailey kicked a winning 21-yard field goal a week after his 40-yarder as time expired beat the Bengals.

``You never know how you're going to handle situations when you're dealt with adversity like we had last week,'' said tight end Jason Witten, who caught a touchdown pass from Tony Romo for the first time this season Sunday against the Steelers.

``Everyone handled it professionally. Yeah, we were emotional. We stayed together and stayed focused.''

It would have been easy for the Dallas defense to give up after Thanksgiving, when linebacker Bruce Carter sustained a season-ending elbow injury in the most demoralizing game of the season.

The Cowboys wilted in the return of Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III to Texas. The former Baylor star dazzled in a 28-point second quarter that led the Redskins to a 38-31 win.

The loss of Carter meant the top two inside linebackers were gone for the season - including defensive leader Sean Lee - and the roster shuffle was on. Brady Poppinga joined Ernie Sims as veterans brought in off the street to help Dan Connor, who figured to be a backup when he signed as a free agent.

Second-year player Alex Albright, Dallas' third-leading tackler against Pittsburgh after Sims went out with a concussion, and rookie Kyle Wilber were much higher on the depth chart than planned.

At least the Cowboys knew all the names of replacement linebackers on game day. When safety Charlie Peprah - another off-the-street pickup - injured a foot in practice after he'd already dealt with a concussion, the Cowboys brought in Sterling Moore so late on a Friday they barely had a chance to talk to him before putting him on the active roster two days later against Philadelphia.

And then there was Michael Coe, a former New York Giants cornerback who recovered a fumble against Dallas in October before he was released and signed by the Cowboys last week. He was No. 36 before Sunday's game. He was No. 20 during it.

``We're battling and peaking,'' Romo said. ``I said earlier we need name tags. A couple of the guys earlier, I said, `Great job No. 20?' I know his name is Coe now, but there a bunch of guys who just got here that are playing and getting a bunch of minutes.''

At least Romo knows Coe's name now. Defensive end Jason Hatcher was calling him ``a guy from New York'' after beating the Steelers. Who's the cornerback from New York?

``I don't know,'' Hatcher said. ``You see what I'm saying?''

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Will Juan Soto follow the same path as Mookie Betts?

Will Juan Soto follow the same path as Mookie Betts?

The gasps came again in New York on Wednesday, this time when Juan Soto ripped his hands in and then through a slider which meandered up and inside. The resulting fly ball went 466 feet to right field, confusing camera operators and announcers alike. Nationals play-by-play man Bob Carpenter, calling road games from Nationals Park, wasn’t quite sure where the ball went or landed because it left camera view. The Mets’ broadcasting crew had a better view in Citi Field. Ron Darling uttered a precise summary while the ball traveled: “Whoa.”

Soto hit a 463-foot home run two days earlier which drew similar awe. Darling said then he had never seen a ball hit to that part of Citi Field -- dead center beyond the iconic rising apple. And, what Soto is doing overall is rarely seen. He’s hit two of the five longest home runs in Citi Field since 2015 (Nos. 3 and 5, respectively) in three days. He tied Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Robinson with 60 home runs before turning 22 years old thanks to the two he hit Wednesday night. Only four players -- Mel Ott, Tony Conigliaro, Eddie Matthews and Ronald Acuña Jr. -- have more before that age. Soto turns 22 on Oct. 25. He is being shorted 109 games this season because of the abbreviated schedule and his late start in it. Yet, he’s still chasing down history.

The short season makes comparison points for his future fluid. However, he is running steady with the early days of one player in particular: Mookie Betts. The far-away question for the Nationals is whether their paths when no longer under team control will go the same.

First, to now. Soto’s first home run Wednesday prompted a response from the official NASA Twitter account when it was asked to locate the launch to right field (“We'll look for it when we get back to the Moon in 2024. Cool?”). But, there was a detail attached to his second home run which may be more telling of his actual ability.

Left-handed Mets reliever Chasen Shreve was able to get Soto to rollover a fastball away for a double play in the third inning. Left-handed pitchers typically try for this precise outcome from Soto by pitching him outside. He often foils it by not taking the bait and instead taking a walk or pushing the ball the other way. Against Shreve, Soto left his principles: he swung at a pitch outside of the strike zone and did so with more of a hook swing than one designed to drive the ball somewhere between left-center field and right-center field. Stay through the middle and good things will happen. It’s a mantra for him. He vacated the idea, then pulled his helmet off at first base and bounced it off the ground following the double play.

He faced another left-handed pitcher in his next at-bat. Justin Wilson tried the same approach as Shreve. He was throwing away, but not far enough. A fastball caught the outside portion of the plate. Soto had cleared his head, drove through the pitch, and hit an opposite-field home run. That, more than distance, shows mental genius at 21 years old.

“He makes in-game adjustments better than any young hitter I’ve ever seen,” Davey Martinez said.

RELATED: SOTO BLASTS LONGEST HOME RUN OF HIS CAREER AGAIN

Now, to the future, via the past. Betts came up as a 21-year-old in Boston. Soto is 21. Betts played half a season at that age, moved to 19th in American League MVP voting the following year, then put his name among the elite his third season when he finished second in MVP voting. He also won a Gold Glove and went to the All-Star Game. Betts pulled together a 9.5 bWAR season in 2016 as a 23-year-old outfielder.

Soto finished second to Acuña Jr. in National League Rookie of the Year voting in his first season. He ascended to ninth in NL MVP voting as a 20-year-old via a 4.6 bWAR season. His current OPS is 1.444. It won’t last. And, this is not a full season to chase Betts’ MVP-runner-up numbers. It does indicate further ascension.

It is also another year of Soto’s service-time clock. The Nationals hold team control of Soto until 2025. Next year he will again make a pittance relative to his peers, when he receives a slight raise from the $629,400 he is making this year. The following year, 2022, he can start to cash in  via arbitration. His salary will progressively climb year after year from there -- with several chances to set a record for arbitration pay should his play be maintained.

The rub arrives in 2025. Soto can become a free agent that year. So can Victor Robles. And, Soto is represented by Scott Boras, who is loathe to do anything other than enter free agency with his clients.

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So, the Nationals will eventually be faced with a similar decision the Boston Red Sox needed to make with Betts: can they afford their star? If not, should he be traded?

Boston was in a bind. It dumped current cash (David Price) and future cash (Betts) in exchange for three prospects. In essence, it was an organizational reboot.

The Nationals don’t tend to operate that way. They have not been forced to rebuild since the initial buildup from franchise newbie to contender was completed. They also do not want to exceed the Competitive Balance Tax whenever possible, pick singular spots for big contracts and are yet to approach Soto about an extension. Needing to choose between him and Robles complicates the process further.

So, for now, maybe it’s best to watch the mammoth homers, listen to out-of-town announcers react with shock, then giggle at tweets from NASA. Four more years of Soto in Washington are guaranteed. Nothing beyond that is.

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Three home runs, Rio Ruiz flip, power Orioles to series victory and sweep opportunity vs. Phillies

Three home runs, Rio Ruiz flip, power Orioles to series victory and sweep opportunity vs. Phillies

With two outs in the eight inning and the Phillies threatening to tie the score, Andrew McCutchen hit a sharp ground ball to the left side of the infield. 

Orioles third baseman Rio Ruiz dove to his left, corralled the ball, and as he was falling, flipped a backhand shovel that rolled to second base just in time for the final out of the inning. It was one of the Orioles' best plays, on offense or defense, all season long. 

The standout defensive play kept the Orioles ahead 5-4, a score they’d win by, in their second straight win over the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. It was the team's second-straight series win.

“That was a huge play,” Chance Sisco said. “It was crazy. Just going into the hole, obviously, is a tough play. And then I don’t know what happened, he stumbled a little bit and fell to the ground. I don’t know what it takes just to get that ball out of his glove. Just a great play.”

Ruiz’s defensive play assuredly prevented a run, and with a bullpen that had to work big innings, that play’s significance cannot be overstated.

“He’s just reading the ball really well, his feet are great, he’s just playing outstanding defense at third base,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “That play that he made in the hole, that was game-saving and really won us the game.”

Ruiz had a good night at the plate as well, as he hit a solo home run — as did Anthony Santander and Sisco, to lead the way offensively for the red-hot Orioles.

RELATED: HOW SOON IS TOO SOON FOR THE O'S TO START THINKING ABOUT THE DEADLINE?

After falling down 3-1, they rallied to tie the game in the fourth inning then took the lead in the fifth. An insurance run, by way of Sisco’s home run, gave the Orioles a two-run lead entering the eighth inning. 

Then, they held on — aided by Ruiz’s absurd defensive play — to push their record to 9-7 with a chance for a sweep over the Phillies on Thursday.

Through 16 games of the 2020 season, the Orioles have already surpassed some people’s expectations of what figured to be a year without any notable or exciting games. 

Now, they’re just riding the wave.

“It seems like good teams have different guys on different nights,” Hyde said. “And right now, that’s what we have. We had some big hits tonight. Chance Sisco, Smitty. Middle relief is what won us the game, to me. We pitched well and we got enough runs to hold on.”

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