Mauti, Hodges uphold PSU's 'Linebacker U' image


Mauti, Hodges uphold PSU's 'Linebacker U' image

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Michael Mauti seemed antsy the way he leaned back and forth in his chair, fidgeted with his fingers and checked his phone.

And that was Mauti just having a conversation in a classroom. Now imagine the taut, 232-pound package of boundless energy wearing shoulder pads and a helmet and sporting a glare as if he were a bull ready to pounce on a matador.

Yup, Penn State's star linebacker is ready to go for Saturday night's showdown with No. 9 Ohio State (8-0, 4-0 Big Ten).

``To me, it's either you're all in or ... I don't really see any other way,'' Mauti said this week. ``They say, `Don't get too high, don't get too low. To me you don't get low - you just stay high.''

For added emphasis, Mauti motioned his hand above his head. It was only fitting for one of the most respected leaders on a defense that's getting better each week.

Tackle Jordan Hill leads the push up front for the Nittany Lions (5-2, 3-0). End Deion Barnes has emerged as a pass-rushing threat as a freshman. The secondary is playing better following early-season trouble on third downs.

But the beating heart of this defense lies at outside linebacker, where Mauti and fellow senior Gerald Hodges form one of the top one-two punches in the country.

The ``Linebacker U.'' reputation is in good hands.

``I wish I had a motor like them,'' Hill said about Mauti and Hodges. ``Even when they're talking, they're going full speed.''

Converted from safety his freshman year, Hodges' 54 tackles is second on the team - to Mauti's 65, of course. And yes, they do keep track of stats in a friendly competition.

They're each semifinalists for the Butkus Award given annually to the best collegiate linebacker. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof, in his first year in Happy Valley, tweaked Penn State's already-solid schemes to add more looks and play with more aggression.

``Each and every game, and every practice, we motivate each other,'' Hodges said. ``It's not like he tells me his stats, and I get mad.''

Indeed, Hodges describes himself as the calmer of the two, at least off the field. On the field, Mauti and Hodges play like they could go 2-on-11 against the offense.

``On the field, we're basically the same exact person. The same exact intensity,'' Hodges said. ``But off the field, Mauti can't sit still ... He always has to be moving around.''

Not so fast, Gerald. Mauti's got a good description of his fellow linebacker, too, by virtue of the pregame routine last week before Penn State's 38-14 thrashing of Iowa.

The locker room in Iowa City was virtually silent except for one voice. Hodges, with his headphones on while preparing for the game, singing a rap song.

``He describes me as hyperactive? I would call him `sporadic,''' Mauti said, laughing. ``On the field, I mean he plays with the same energy, but then he gets in his own world. He's in `Gerald-world,' when he puts on his headphones and it's silent in the locker room.''

Whatever the pregame ritual, the play of Mauti and Hodges harkens of other recent dynamic Penn State linebacker duos.

In 2005 and 2006, Paul Posluszny and Dan Connor hounded opposing running backs. In 2009, Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman wreaked havoc together all over the field.

Mauti could have joined Lee and Bowman in the middle that season had he not gone down with a season-ending injury to his right knee. He was playing well last season until another season-ending injury, this time to his left knee in Week 4.

``I recruited him hard at Florida. Loved him as a high school athlete,'' Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. ``He's a tough guy. He's a leader. ... He's playing his tail off after his knee injury.''

For all that intensity on the field, though, Mauti is ``really kind of meek and mild-mannered'' off the field, said his father, Rich Mauti, who also played for Penn State.

``Like many football players, when you hit that switch when you get down to the field, he's an extremely emotional player,'' the elder Mauti said recently. ``In the real world, he fits in perfectly ... he'd rather be behind the scenes than in front, believe it or not.''

But front and center is exactly where Mauti stood in late July, days after the NCAA levied its strict sanctions on Penn State for how the school handled the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The punishment included a four-year postseason, meaning Mauti and the other seniors wouldn't be able to finish their college careers at a bowl game.

The NCAA also allowed current players - Mauti included - to seek immediate transfers to other schools without having to sit out a year. The rumor mill spun out of control. Would Penn State even have a team to field in 2012?

Mauti and running back Michael Zordich stepped up. Surrounded by about two dozen players at a hastily-called news conference, Mauti and Zordich made an impassioned statement that they were staying in Happy Valley. Eventually, most other players followed suit, though the Nittany Lions did lose about 10 key players including tailback Silas Redd and kicker-punter Anthony Fera.

Mauti also wasn't shy about criticizing Illinois coach Tim Beckman for actively recruiting Penn State players over the summer. Mauti backed up his words with a star turn in last month's 35-7 rout of the Illini with six tackles and two interceptions, including a 99-yarder that set a school record.

Just five more games to go for Mauti to put on his blue-and-white uniform, starting with Saturday's tilt against the unbeaten Buckeyes. The senior in part credits Lee, now with the Dallas Cowboys, with instilling his every-second-counts intensity.

``Once you start feeling the clock, you've got less and less time,'' Mauti said. ``You've got to make the most of what you've got.''


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Joe Maddon's protest prompts Sean Doolittle to call his act 'tired'

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Joe Maddon's protest prompts Sean Doolittle to call his act 'tired'

WASHINGTON -- Sean Doolittle stood at his locker in the clubhouse still roiled by what occurred in the ninth inning Saturday. 

His clean inning for his eighth save was not on his mind. Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon was.

The Cubs appeared to enact a pre-planned grouse when they say Doolittle next. Chicago quality assurance coach Chris Denorfia was talking to the umpires as Doolittle warmed up in the 5-2 game. Following Doolittle's first pitch, Maddon popped out of the dugout to begin his banter, and eventual protest, of Doolittle's delivery.

At question was Doolittle's toe tap. With no runners on base, he raises his front leg, drops and holds it for a count, then grazes the dirt with is cleat before he fully comes to the plate. Doolittle started this almost a year ago during a late May series in Miami. No one had complained since -- until Maddon emerged from the Cubs' dugout.

If the umpires deem the move illegal, the outcome is a ball called with the bases empty or a balk called with runners on base. Saturday, home plate umpire Sam Holbrook told Doolittle he was doing nothing wrong. Which turned the postgame discussion around the event to Maddon's intentions. 

A starting point would be one of Maddon's relievers, Carl Edwards Jr., tried to add a similar move in spring training. But Edwards was putting his full foot on the ground and was told the move was illegal. 
Doolittle was more inclined to believe Maddon's primary motivation was to rattle him at the start of the save opportunity, and he calmly, but clearly, took digs at Maddon for the process. 

"After the first time Joe came out, the home plate umpire was like you're fine, just keep it moving," Doolittle said. "Don't start, stop and start again. Just keep it moving. I was like, that's what I do all the time anyway, that moment, he's not trying to do anything other than rattle me and it was kind of tired. I don't know. Sometimes he has to remind people how smart he is and how much he pays attention to the game and stuff like that. He put his stamp on it for sure. 

"I actually have to thank him. After they came out the second, the [Kyle] Schwarber at-bat, I threw two fastballs and a slider and a fastball to [Kris] Bryant and those were probably the best ones I've thrown in a while. I don't do the tap when there's somebody on base so I can keep my pickoff move available if I need it. I've had a lot of traffic recently, so I've had practice doing it, so it wasn't like a huge adjustment to me. I don't know. In a way, I kind of need to thank him."
Doolittle wasn't finished. He was later asked if he thought Maddon was trying to get him to change his mechanics.

"Well, yeah, that's part of the mind game that he was trying to play and I get that," Doolittle said. "I guess I should take it as a compliment that he felt like he had to do that in order to try to throw me off my game in that situation. They're trying to get you to over-think it and change something in the middle of a save opportunity to give them a chance where you start making mistakes or are over-thinking it. 

"But once the home plate umpire tells me, he said, you're fine, just keep it moving, it's just a tap, at this point, I've been doing it for over a year. We're a month-and-a-half into the season, so I know their guy had to make an adjustment; I thought it was a thinly veiled attempt to kind of throw me off."

Members of the Nationals staff were also irked. Among their concerns was the chance for Doolittle to injure himself if he suddenly changed his delivery.
Maddon was adamant the situation was created by Edwards not being allowed to alter his delivery.

“It’s really simple," Maddon said. "That’s exactly what Carl (Edwards) was told he can’t do. And I was told it was an illegal pitch and he can’t do it. I went to Sam (Holbrook), and I told him that. And he said, ‘in our judgment.’ I said, ‘there’s no judgment. If he taps the ground, it’s an illegal pitch, period.’ There’s nothing to judge. You can judge whether he did or not. It’s obvious that he did. If you can’t tell that, then there’s something absolutely wrong. So that was my argument.

"I said if you guys don’t clean it up, I’m going to protest the game.  So we protested the game. For me, I don’t know how many he actually did make that were illegal pitches. I don’t know how they’re going to rule with this. It’s their rule. It’s not mine. I didn’t ask for it in the first place. They took it away from Carl. They took it away from (Cory) Gearrin. They’ve taken it away from a couple guys and they seem to be somewhat aware, but not aware of what had happened."

Wherever the truth resides, Saturday night became another installment in the oddities when Chicago and Washington play. The Cubs walked Bryce Harper 13 times in 19 plate appearances in 2016. The 2017 five-game National League Division Series which ended in Nationals Park included Stephen Strasburg's mystery illness and PR gaffe about who would pitch Game 4 in Chicago. Add Saturday night to the strangeness and buckle up for Sunday's series finale.


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Strasburg dazzles as another quick start leads to a Nationals win

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Strasburg dazzles as another quick start leads to a Nationals win

The Washington Nationals bounced back to beat the Chicago Cubs, 5-2, Saturday to improve to 19-26. Here are five observations from the game…

1. Davey Martinez can’t draw up a night on the mound much better than riding Stephen Strasburg long enough to get to one inning of Sean Doolittle.

Of course, that was only possible thanks to the brilliance of Strasburg, who tossed eight stellar innings Saturday. He was efficient throughout, throwing just 93 pitches and walking only one. Strasburg allowed four hits, two runs (only one earned), and struck out seven Cubs.

Strasburg “only” induced 15 swinging strikes, far from his best number this season, but still pretty good. It didn’t matter, especially with how quickly he was able to make work of the Cubs, getting ground ball after ground ball all night long.

NBC Sports Washington’s own Todd Dybas pointed out midway through the start how Strasburg was going back to his fastball after multiple starts in this recent successful stretch where he featured his curveball prominently. That pattern held throughout his eight innings, and tonight, nearly half (7) of Strasburg’s swinging strikes came on the four-seamer.

Strasburg’s success tonight continues a great recent stretch. He’s allowed just 10 earned runs in his last 42.1 innings, spanning six starts. He’s got 54 strikeouts and just six walks in those starts, a remarkable 9:1 ratio. 

It all adds up to one of the best stretches of Strasburg’s career, as he continues to cement himself as one of three true aces on the current Washington staff. And tonight may have been the most impressive outing yet, considering how deep he went into the game and how hot the opponent’s bats had been.

2. The Nationals are hoping their lineup sees an uptick in performance with guys like Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, and Trea Turner getting back in the swing of things after time on the IL. Those three combined for five hits, three RBI and three runs Saturday.

But it would go a long way for the offense if Brian Dozier finds his stroke as well.

The powerful second baseman is a notoriously slow starter, but when he gets on a hot streak, he can carry a team. It’s only two games, but this may be the start of one of his patented “in the zone” streaks at the plate.

Dozier has gone 3-for-4 and 2-for-4 in back to back games, including a stretch where he reach base six straight times. That includes tonight’s home run to start the scoring for the Nats.

It’s been hard to fault Davey Martinez for his daily lineup construction with all the injuries. Now that his team is getting healthy, it will be interesting to see where Dozier fits in. The top of the order seems well set with Turner, Rendon, and Soto sandwiching one or two of Howie Kendrick, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton. 

Where does that leave Dozier? Probably in the 6-7 range. But if he keeps swinging the bat like he has against the Cubs, that could change. In a week, Martinez has gone from not having enough viable options to potentially having too many. I’m sure he’s happier with the latter.

3. A pattern has emerged in recent wins for the Nationals. When they get off to a quick start, they win. When they don’t, they lose.

In four of their last five victories, the Nats have scored first, including early-inning leads of at least three runs in each game.

In the four losses during the same stretch, the opposing team scored first each time, including three times in the first inning. In those losses, the Nationals were ultimately outscored by a combined 31-8.

In other words, quick starts have been crucial to the team’s success. It’s a narrative that would make sense even if the numbers didn’t back it up. With the way the team has struggled so consistently this season, it would be natural to feel deflated after an early deficit. That feeling is magnified with the lack of faith in the bullpen's ability to keep games within reach.

Saturday night against the Cubs kept this pattern going, with the Nats jumping on the board first with a Brian Dozier home run in the second inning, followed by the three-run fourth inning. That would prove to be all the support Strasburg needed, and once again Washington was able to ride early momentum to a relatively easy win.

4. The team as a whole was looking to bounce back Saturday night, but so was their best reliever.

Doolittle has been, far and away, the most reliable, valuable member of the Nationals bullpen in 2019, but against the Mets Thursday, he wasn’t himself. The lefty allowed four hits and two earned runs in his inning of work, walking one and striking out two on 31 pitches.

Coming off his worst inning of the season, Doolittle was back to his usual self against the Cubs.  He only needed seven pitches (six strikes) to make quick work of Chicago in the top of the ninth inning and earn his eighth save, even with some funny business.

Joe Maddon came out to protest with the umpires about Doolittle tapping his toe on the mound after beginning his windup. It’s a move the Cubs’ own Carl Edwards Jr. had been banned from doing, so his manager was obviously upset to see the Nats’ star closer getting away with something similar.

It’s unclear if anything else will come from the points Maddon brought up, but on Saturday at least, Doolittle was unfazed even after getting “iced” by the opposing manager.

5. For all the struggles the Nats have faced this season, they might be in the midst of a turning point.

It may not feel like it to frustrated fans who just want to see the team reel off several straight wins, but the Nationals have put themselves in position to potentially "win" their third straight series against a quality opponent. Yes, technically the Los Angeles series was a 2-2 split, but considering the Dodgers had only lost four games at home all season prior to the Nats’ trip, we’ll count the split as a win.

They followed that up taking two of three from the Mets, who have faltered of late but are still talented enough to be heard from in the National League East this season.

And now, after bouncing back from last night’s tough 14-6 loss, the Nats have earned an opportunity to grab another series win Sunday night. Of course, they’ll need a strong start from Jeremy Hellickson, which is less likely than it was Friday with Scherzer or Saturday with Strasburg.

Eventually, if the Nationals want to make any real noise, they will need an elongated winning streak. They’ve yet to win more than two consecutive games at any point this season, and have already experienced three losing streaks longer than that.

The talent is there, especially as much of the team gets healthy, and the schedule is finally lightening up. Nats fans are tired of hearing it, but this may finally be the successful stretch they’ve been waiting for. At the very least, the opportunity is there.