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Newton, Panthers heating up a little too late

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Newton, Panthers heating up a little too late

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers offense are finally hitting their groove.

Too bad for Carolina it's a case of too little, too late.

At 4-9, Carolina's playoff aspirations evaporated several weeks ago, but Newton's vastly improved play in recent weeks gives promise that his stellar rookie season in 2011 was far from a fluke and better times are ahead.

After a rough start this season, Newton has tallied 1,363 yards from scrimmage with 11 combined touchdowns and, here's the really impressive part, no turnovers in the past four games.

Carolina piled up 365 yards of offense in 2 1/2 quarters Sunday against NFC South champion Atlanta and built a 23-0 lead and held on to upset the Falcons 30-20.

Newton finished with stellar numbers, completing 23 of 35 passes for 287 yards with two touchdowns. He also ran for 116 yards, completing a jaw-dropping 72-yard touchdown jaunt along the left sidelines by somersaulting into the end zone before getting to his feet and pretending to rip open his shirt like Superman.

``Spectacular,'' Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Newton's performance.

``The way he played and the things that he did, that shows you what potentially he is going to become. We just have to keep working and he has to keep growing as a football player. These last five weeks now have been pretty doggone solid. I'm very pleased with his development,'' Rivera said.

After ranking near the bottom of the league on offense most of the year and struggling to close out close games, the Panthers are averaging 397 yards and 23 points per game over the last four weeks entering Sunday's game at San Diego.

That's a bittersweet stat for Rivera to swallow.

``The disappointing thing is that's what we can be,'' Rivera said. ``We know that. Based on what we did, how we did it and who we did it with, that's the disappointing thing. ... We've found balance, we have. Unfortunately we didn't do it sooner.''

After Sunday's win over Atlanta, Newton downplayed talk of being ``in the zone.''

``I just think this whole offense is clicking,'' Newton said. ``We just have to connect the dots. When the offense is on, the defense has to step up, and when the defense is on, the offense has to pick it up also, and special teams.''

Rivera said Newton has handled himself more professionally in recent weeks, particularly after losses.

That's always been a touchy subject for Newton, a guy who barely lost at the previous level claiming national championships at Blind Junior College and Auburn.

Rivera said Newton has also been more accepting of what offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski and quarterbacks coach Mike Shula have been teaching him after a disappointing start to the season in which Newton only threw five TD passes in his first seven games and turned it over 12 times.

``I think his football acumen has improved,'' Rivera said. ``I think his footwork has gotten better, his technique, his style, things that he does. It's like all of a sudden the light bulb has gone off and I think that has been big.''

Still, for Newton, the effort was good, but not good enough.

After the game Sunday he stopped briefly in his postgame press conference to berate himself over the plays he didn't make.

Even after Carolina piled up 475 total yards in offense against the Falcons, Newton was thinking about a throw that got away. He had receiver Louis Murphy open down the left sideline on a long pass play but threw it too far to the left and out of bounds where Murphy had no chance to make a play on it.

``Some plays I wish I could have back,'' Newton said.

However, the one play Newton left everyone talking about was his highlight reel touchdown run where he got a downfield block from Steve Smith to spring him to the end zone. For all the grief the Panthers have taken about their zone read option not being effective, this play worked like a charm.

Tight end Greg Olsen said it was a play similar to what they'd been running all season but with a little wrinkle.

``We did a nice job dressing it up, starting out a receiver at the back and they really keyed in on DeAngelo Williams,'' Olsen said. ``I came around, they blitzed the safety and we just had a great call there at the right time for that look. They blitzed that safety and that's my guy. It's like you drew it up on paper.''

Then he added with a smile, ``but you need a 6-foot-5 quarterback to run 80 yards. We were fortunate to have that.''

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Max Scherzer's return from hamstring injury was a battle, but one he won against the Mets

Max Scherzer's return from hamstring injury was a battle, but one he won against the Mets

Better. Though the bar was low.

Max Scherzer worked for six innings Tuesday night in New York. He made it through one roughshod inning during his last outing against the Mets because his hamstring “tweak” was enough of an alarm that he decided to stop pitching.

That was seven days prior to his start against the Mets, which the Nationals won, 2-1. Ostensibly, Scherzer had not pitched for 13 days. He lasted the one inning, needed to work his hamstring problem out, then find a way back to the mound.

Davey Martinez wanted him to stop sprinting -- the initial cause of the hamstring problem -- in between starts. Scherzer did not want to stop sprinting, so he continued to do so once he felt better. He also pitched twice from a mound in the days before the bottom of the first on Tuesday. Both times, he felt 100 percent when pushing and landing. The hamstring was fine. So much so, that he expected to throw the 105 pitches he did to hold off the Mets across the grinding innings they imposed on him.

“Took some shots there early, but didn’t break and found a way to execute pitches there later in the game,” Scherzer said.

RELATED: TREA TURNER'S SWING HAS TAKEN TIME TO ADJUST WITHOUT REPLAY ACCESS

He finished with seven strikeouts across the six innings. Just a run scored. But, there were eight baserunners and Scherzer was in severe trouble in both the first and second innings. Those were the issues as he hunted a path to better out-pitches and location.

“It honestly kind of reminded me of Game 7 of the World Series when he went out there and he couldn’t zone in on the strike zone,” Martinez said. “His stuff was good. His pitch count got high. Once he settled in, we started noticing he started getting through the ball a little better. Balls started coming down. Started throwing a lot more strikes.”

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“Even though my pitch count got out of control, I was just able to just stay with [Kurt Suzuki] and continue to pound the zone and find a way to get through six [Tuesday],” Scherzer said.

The good is clear: He is back on the mound, healthy, throwing 98 mph and 100-plus pitches. Stephen Strasburg returned two days prior, though he is not 100 percent. Scherzer is physically right, if slightly rusty. That combination was sufficient in his first start after the hamstring problem.

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With no access to in-game video, Trea Turner’s swing has taken time to adjust

With no access to in-game video, Trea Turner’s swing has taken time to adjust

Heading into the Nationals’ four-game series with the New York Mets this week, Trea Turner was hitting just .196 on the young season with one home run. The vaunted base stealer had been thrown out on the basepaths three times while having yet to swipe a bag successfully. In the field, he’d racked up three errors.

It was a frustrating start for the 27-year-old shortstop, who’s coming off a season in which he played with only nine fingers and still found a way to serve as a catalyst atop the Nationals’ lineup. Now fully healthy, Turner was expected to play a role in helping Washington absorb the loss of Anthony Rendon in the middle of its lineup.

Normally, poor at-bats would prompt Turner to head down to the replay room for a quick look at his mechanics. He goes into the clubhouse in between innings and examines his previous swings to see if he needs to make any adjustments. It’s a practice Turner has grown to rely on over the course of his major-league career.

But this season, Turner hasn’t had access to the replay room after MLB banned in-game video as part of its health protocols for playing in the middle of a pandemic. Instead, he’s had to wait until after each game before being able to break down his swing. It’s made for slower progress, but after going 5-for-9 with two home runs and four RBIs over the first two games of the series in New York, he feels that his adjustments have started to pay off.

“I felt good in the box and I feel like my approach was good but not having video is a little different and I feel like in years past I was pretty good at going back and just checking out the swing real quick and making the little adjustment I need to make in game,” Turner said in a Zoom press conference after Tuesday’s 2-1 win.

“Finally made the right adjustment a few games ago and started putting the barrel on the ball and feeling a little better. The last four or five games or so my contact has been a little bit stronger and it was just a matter of time for the hits to start to fall.”

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Turner hasn’t been the only member of the baseball community to express how the lack of video access has changed their approach. On Saturday, Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash told MLB Network Radio that he wasn’t pleased with MLB’s decision to ban something that had become an integral tool for coaches and players during games.

“Without being too controversial, I think it's absolutely ridiculous,” Cash said. “It's probably one of the worst things that I've seen Major League Baseball do in take video away from players. Video is what makes us good. It helps us learn, it helps us coach, it helps us attack. And it's been taken away from us because of one team, or a couple teams' stupid choices.”

“We can't even watch a game; we cannot watch our own game. Our players cannot come in and watch a game in the clubhouse. It is asinine. The entire protocol system, how they came up with that, it is wrong. They're doing an injustice to players.”

While it’s unknown whether the real reasoning behind MLB’s decision is related to health protocols or the sign-stealing scandals that surrounded the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox over the offseason, Turner isn’t making any excuses. In fact, the results are beginning to turn his way.

Entering play Tuesday, Turner had a hard-hit percentage of 40.9 percent, well above his career rate of 32.5. His batting average on balls in play was just .238 (league average is .300), indicating he had been getting unlucky on some well struck balls. In fact, his groundball rate is down five percentage points from his career average while his flyball rate is up 10 percent.

Then came his home run off Mets starter Rick Porcello in the first inning. Turner took a breaking ball high and away and hit it off his back foot on a line straight into the seats in right field.

It was only Turner’s second opposite-field homer of his career after he hit none all of last season. Yet even with the adjustments he’d been making to his swing, he said that he didn’t go into the at-bat looking to hit anything to right field against Porcello.

“I think it’s just swing path and pitch,” Turner said. “I’ve hit a few balls to right-center out in certain stadiums, mostly probably at home, and I don’t know if those are opposite field per se. They might be more center field but I just think when you’re facing righties, to hit an opposite-field home run is fairly tough. He tried going toward that backdoor sinker and I just felt like it was the right swing on the right pitch and just keeping it fair and not slicing the ball.”

Turner will continue tweaking away at his swing, hoping to produce results like he has so far in the New York. But with or without the video replay room, he doesn’t expect the opposite-field homer to be the start of a new trend.

“I don’t have necessarily that oppo power some of these big guys get,” Turner said. “I usually have to pull them but every once in a while, if you get the right pitch on the right swing, it sneaks out. So I’ll take it.”

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