Nationals

NFC North gets tighter as rivalries finally start

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NFC North gets tighter as rivalries finally start

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) The NFC North is exactly what the NFL had in mind when it backloaded the schedule with division games.

The top three teams - the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings - are all still very much alive in the playoff hunt. Better yet, with only two games separating the teams and four games left between them, no one is anywhere close to clinching the division title.

``They count as double,'' Vikings running back Adrian Peterson said. ``Everyone is a game ahead or a game behind, so each game is going to be very important.''

Taking a tip from baseball and its captivating pennant races, the NFL began stacking division games at the end of the season last year. Oh, there would still be the occasional team that would run away with its division, wrap things up before the calendar hit December (yes, Denver and Atlanta, we're talking about you). But most teams would still be in the thick of it, making the games in the final month of the season more meaningful - and more exciting.

A win one week, and a team could be on top the division. A loss the next, and they're scrambling for the wild card. What's not to love about that?

``That's why they structure it like that,'' Packers defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. ``It's like we're in the playoffs right now.''

Not that the NFC North needed any help making its matchups more riveting.

The NFC North rivalries have never been what you'd describe as friendly. Oh, the atmosphere is mellower than when Curly Lambeau and George Halas refused to shake hands after their games. But the teams are too close in proximity and have too much history to be just another week on the schedule.

``It's the Vikings,'' Pickett said of Green Bay's game this Sunday. ``And we don't like the Vikings.''

That goes double for the fans. Midwesterners may be warm and friendly, but they're as provincial as any on the East Coast. Their teams are like an extension of their families, making the twice-a-season meetings with their border rivals as heated as a holiday feud. That Cheesehead nickname Wisconsinites have come to embrace? It was originally an insult by Illinoisans. There's a reason Green Bay fans could live with Brett Favre playing for the Jets but couldn't stomach the sight of him in a Vikings jersey.

Beat the snobby neighbor to the south (or north or east or west) and it's worth an entire summer of bragging rights. A long winning streak is often considered evidence of an entire state's superiority.

Add playoff implications into the mix, and the fiery rivalries could become downright combustible.

``I asked them this exact question: `Do I have to give a motivational speech to get us ready for THIS game?'' said Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, who counts as something of an expert, having spent his playing career with the Bears.

``When you're playing a divisional rival, those guys understand the implications and what has to get done. At this level, if you can't get excited about this opportunity, you're in the wrong business.''

Particularly with so much at stake.

The Packers (7-4) are a game in front of the Vikings (6-5). They play twice in the final five weeks of the season, Sunday in Green Bay and the Dec. 30 season finale in Minneapolis. Both teams also have a game left against the Bears, who lost to Green Bay in September and beat Minnesota last week.

Do the math, and the division standings could be turned upside-down every week from here on out. So, too, the wild-card race, where Green Bay leads and Minnesota is locked in a tie with Seattle and Tampa Bay.

``These are the ones that you live for. These are the ones that, when you're playing in pee wee, you dream about, playing in the NFL against your rival,'' Christian Ponder said. ``Vikings-Green Bay, that's a huge game and obviously what's at stake makes it even bigger.''

Green Bay has won its last nine games against its NFC North brethren, a franchise-record streak that dates back to December 2010. You have to go back another year for the Packers' last division loss at Lambeau Field, where they have won 23 of their last 25 regular-season games.

The last NFC North team that won in Green Bay? None other than the Vikings.

``We need to get this Green Bay win,'' Frazier said. ``It's important for us and it's no different for them. They need it as much as we do.''

The status of Vikings multi-threat receiver Percy Harvin is doubtful with an ankle injury. But Peterson has put up some big numbers against the Packers, and Green Bay will be without defensive end C.J. Wilson, a cornerstone of the run defense.

The Packers' offense, meanwhile, is trying to figure out how to rebound from last weekend's 38-10 beatdown by the New York Giants that was even more lopsided than the score indicated. Aaron Rodgers was sacked five times, giving him an NFL-worst 37 sacks. That's one more than he had all of last season.

But the Packers should get a boost from the return of No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings, who expects to play Sunday after missing the last seven games with a torn abdominal muscle.

And knowing they're facing the Vikings will snap anyone out of a funk.

``Every one of these games is important,'' Rodgers said. ``The NFC is getting tight for the playoff race. Everything's in front of us. If we win out, we win the division, host a playoff game at the very worst. We like where we're at. It wouldn't hurt to have a couple more wins at this point, but we put ourselves in position to make a run, and that's all you can ask for at this time of the season.''

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AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski in Eden Prairie, Minn., contributed to this story.

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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, so...in 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.

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