Nationals

No. 11 Clemson defense tightening up

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No. 11 Clemson defense tightening up

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables knew he had talented players, even if they hadn't always shown that early on. Now, the Tigers are showing they can play a little defense, too.

No. 11 Clemson put on its best defensive showing of the season, holding Maryland to 180 yards in a 45-10 victory on Saturday. The Tigers (9-1, 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) have been fueled all season by a record-setting offense that's scored 45 points a game during its six-game win streak. These days, the high-flying offense is backed up by a defense that seemed a lost cause earlier in the year.

Venables is the first year coordinator brought in to tighten and toughen a group that gave up a bowl-record 70 points in losing to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Venables understands the Terrapins (4-6, 2-4) are in an injury-induced free-fall, using linebacker Shawn Petty at quarterback and without star receiver Stefon Diggs because of ankle problems.

Still, there's no hiding that Clemson's finding its defensive groove late in the season. The defense forced Terps quarterback Shawn Petty into a pair of fumbles, both which led to Tiger touchdowns. One of those came from defensive end Corey Crawford, who scooped up the ball and ran 16 yards for a score and a 14-0 lead. The Tigers pressured Petty all game, collecting two sacks and limiting him to 6 of 11 passing for 41 yards.

``I'm happy and proud of all those guys,'' Venables said.

The Tigers won an ACC championship despite a defense that was ninth in the league in yards allowed. The low point came in Clemson's first BCS game, an embarrassing 70-33 defeat where the Tigers allowed West Virginia to run wild with 589 yards. Coordinator Kevin Steele was out and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney brought in Venables, the ultra-successful defensive mind for a national championship program at Oklahoma.

Things were rough at first as players adjusted to Venables' different concepts, Crawford said. The Tigers looked lost in a 20-minute stretch at Florida State in September, surrendering five touchdowns and a 14-point lead to lose 49-37 at Tallahassee - a loss that looks like it will cost Clemson a second consecutive try at a league title.

Clemson gave up 667 yards - the second highest total in school history - to Florida State and Venables was asked over and over if the Tigers had good enough players to stop anybody.

``Hey listen, I told them all along we've got some quality players here,'' Venables said. ``We're good enough to play very good defense if we understand what we're supposed to do.''

Understanding has clicked in the past few games. The Tigers held Wake Forest to 290 yards in a 42-13 victory. Surprising Duke managed 342 yards and scored just 3 points the final three quarters in Clemson's 56-20 win.

Venables said it took time for the players to feel comfortable in the different schemes. The Tigers have also been stronger with the little things, like proper alignment, sharp technique and correct reactions to what they're seeing when the play unfolds. ``They've really worked incredibly hard, they're out there early at practice working on the little things and understanding football,'' he said.

Clemson's defenders never gave Petty and the Terps the chance to get synched. Crawford's strip sack, scoop and score effectively ended things, forcing Maryland to play catch up without the personnel to accomplish that.

Crawford didn't feel sorry, though. ``To be honest, that's their problem,'' he said with a laugh. ``No pity.''

Maryland coach Randy Edsall said the Tigers forced his team off the field quickly, stalling drives and quashing momentum. The Terps were just 1 of 13 on third downs. ``Against those guys, you have to be able to do that,'' he said.

Venables hopes the Tigers carry their defensive momentum the final two games. Clemson's got a chance to hit milestones it hadn't since the school's perfect, 12-0 national championship season of 1981.

The Maryland victory gave Clemson back-to-back six win ACC seasons for the first time since 1987 and 1988. Beating North Carolina State next week would mean two straight seasons of double-digit wins since posting four consecutive 10-win seasons since 1987-90.

Winning out - the Tigers close the year at home against rival South Carolina - could bring an at-large BCS berth and the chance to wipe away the embarrassing stain left by the West Virginia game.

Crawford says it's hard not to look ahead sometimes, especially with what's at stake. ``But we have to be disciplined and take it one game at a time,'' he said. ``We can reminisce on what just happened. We've got to go for the game that we're playing right here and now.''

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2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nationals outfield is built to succeed

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USA TODAY Sports

2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nationals outfield is built to succeed

The Washington Nationals outfield was one of the most intriguing position groups of the 2018 season. Two of the team's star figures, Bryce Harper and Juan Soto, resided out there more than 200 feet from home plate.

Fittingly, we'll start our position review series taking a look at the most talented group of players on the Nationals. 

Overall, they were outstanding. Each of the nine players brought something different to the team. Whether it was Harper doing Harper things, Soto continuing to break teenager records, or Michael A. Taylor filling in nearly every other day, there was versatility each night.

Good news for the Nationals is most of these guys will be back. Of all the outfielders still on the roster, only Harper is set to become a free agent. 

The unit is young and has strong depth. Potentially it also has Howie Kendrick, who missed a majority of the season and is still under contract for a year. 

Honestly this could be a position group that has some of their bench pieces on the trading block during the offseason. There are holes spattered around the rest of the roster and there are outfielders to spare with or without Harper coming back.

Without further ado, here is a look at each of the outfielders this past season. 

Bryce Harper

There are multiple ways to look at Harper's production this season. In some ways he was productive, in others it was one of his worst years on record. 

He took care of the important stats. With 34 home runs it was his second-highest dinger output of his career (only behind his MVP season in 2015) and tied for the seventh-most in the National League. Although a slightly irrelevant stat, he did have a career-high 100 RBIs as well. 

As a whole his batting average was .249. But if you take into account how poor his start to the season was, and a .214 batting average with that, the just turned 26-year-old finished nicely. 

Spin it as you will, his OPS was .889 with a MLB-leading 130 walks. 

Harper is still the best position player with a Curly W on his chest. If he returns, that title will not exchange hands next season. 

Juan Soto

Call him a kid. Call him our son. Call him a phenom.

Whatever you call him, he is the future of the Nationals. With Soto in the outfield it makes the idea of the team not wanting to sign Harper sound a little less crazy. 

For your convenience, here is a list of all of the accomplishments he had this past season.

What makes it all even more impressive is that he did not even play the full season. He was called up in the middle of May.

His 22 home runs, 70 RBIs, 121 hits, .292 batting average, .923 OPS all came with him only playing three-quarters of a season.

Oh and he turns 20 in less than a week. 

Adam Eaton

A stint on the 60-day disabled list did not prevent Adam Eaton from having the best hitting season of his career. He had career-highs in batting average (.301) and OBP (.394) only playing in 95 games. 

He's never been a long ball hitter, but getting him on-base is his strongest asset. In nearly every contest the seven-year veteran batted lead-off for the Nats. However, the Nationals were unable to take advantage of him getting on base. Eaton only came around to score 55 runs. 

With Harper, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, and Juan Soto typically batting behind him, that is a total that should be much higher. 

Of note, 2019 will be his final season under contract for the Nationals. This season, perhaps even the offseason, Washington will need to decide if he is one of the right pieces going forward. Re-signing Harper is sure to be a big factor in that decision. 

Michael A. Taylor

Initially filling in for the injured Eaton, Taylor had a formidable 2018 season. Performing on the field and at the plate earned him a start in the regular rotation. 

Of the regular contributors he did have the lowest batting average in the outfield. His speed however is what he brings to this squad. 

Holding the fort at center field, alongside whichever pair of Nationals at his side, he makes it difficult for balls to get behind him. 

Defensively he is a huge asset to Washington. Offensively he does need to pick it up. 

Andrew Stevenson

This season was the most action that Andrew Stevenson has seen since being drafted by the Nationals in 2015.

At 24 with 75 at-bats, he mustered a .253 average for a decent year as a call-up.

The jury is still out for Stevenson, but the Nats have plenty of time to decide what move to make with him. The next two years he is under team control and is likely a tradable piece.

Victor Robles

Everyone was waiting to see Victor Robles, the Nationals top prospect, get some consistent playing time with the Nats. 

This season he got that time in September, with the team pretty much out of postseason contention.

There was nothing too staggering about Robles during that month, but he did piece together a .288 batting average. The big highlight was this monster homer he hit.

He'll get more time in 2019. Without Harper he'll likely be on the team's daily roster.

Moises Sierra

Probably the only National on this list that you haven't heard of but the Nats took a chance on Moises Sierra in the minor leagues.

In the lineup for 27 games in Washington, Sierra did not do much on the offensive end, batting .217. He's still a fringe major leaguer and has a lot to prove to get extra time with this group of players.

Howie Kendrick

At the time the loss of Kendrick was considered detrimental for the Nationals. He was the team's primary second baseman to start the season and his injury led to Daniel Murphy seeing significant time.

Still, he did play in the outfield, although he has lost the speed from his youth in Los Angeles. 

He had a phenomenal offensive start to the season no matter what spot he was at in the batting order. 

Likely he will not be an option in the outfield, given the new crop of players that proved themselves this season. But, do not be surprised if Kendrick has to spend some time in the grass if Harper is not on the roster next season.

Kendrick is guy that the Nationals cannot afford to not be in the batting order. 

The Other Guys:

There are two other outfielders that saw action in 2018, Brian Goodwin and Rafael Bautista. 

Goodwin was traded to the Kansas City Royals before the trade deadline. He had limited production with the Nats over the past three seasons. With Soto, Taylor, and

Robles now in a position to step in, the organization simply did not have room for him. 

Bautista got sent back to the minor leagues and will likely stay there unless there are some unforeseen injuries. 

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3 things to watch in Caps vs. Panthers

3 things to watch in Caps vs. Panthers

The Capitals play their last home game of October on Friday as they host the Florida Panthers (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington). Here’s what you need to watch.

Dmitrij Jaskin is back in

Todd Reirden has made one adjustment to the lineup for Friday’s game, putting Dmitrij Jaskin back in on the fourth line in place of Nathan Walker. Jaskin has yet to record a point since joining the Capitals, but that has a lot to do with where he was coming from.

“This team is based on being creative and it's probably something that I missed in the last few years,” Jaskin said following Friday’s morning skate.

In St. Louis, Jaskin was coached by Mike Yeo and, before him, Ken Hitchcock. Both coaches preach a hard-nosed offensive style based more on effort and being defensively responsible than skill. Coming to a team like Washington then, a team that encourages skill and creativity on offense, is a pretty dramatic change.

Jaskin has played a very safe style since coming into the lineup. It’s good to be defensively responsible, but not if it completely chokes the life out of the offense. Jaskin is hardly generating any offense at all thus far since coming to Washington.

After a few more practices, can it finally spark some skill and creativity from Jaskin?

Can the Caps get the bottom six back on track?

The Caps have gotten only two goals in six games from their bottom six and both came in the team’s blowout opening win against Boston. The third and fourth lines generated some chances on Wednesday, but afterward, Reirden stressed that the team needed to see more production from its depth forwards.

“We've got to continue to get scoring depth wise if we want to have success in this league,” he said. “That's where everything's headed is you can't rely on your top guys to come through for you every night and we'll continue to focus on finding the right chemistry with that third and fourth line to be able to give us some added offense there as well.”

Florida could provide a good opportunity for those players to get some points on the board.

Starting goalie Roberto Luongo is out with an injury and James Reimer will get the start on Friday. In three games, Reimer has a GAA of 3.62 and save percentage of .885.

As a team, the Panthers currently rank 24th in goals against per game with 3.50.

Two teams in need of a win

Florida is still searching for its first win of the season with a 0-2-2 record. It is still early, but this is a Panthers team with playoff aspirations and you don’t want to dig yourself in too deep a hole to start or it becomes very difficult to dig out.

The Caps, meanwhile, will be playing in their final home game of October. They leave Saturday for Vancouver to kick-off a three-game Western Canada trip. They then will face the Canadiens in Montreal on Nov. 1 before finally returning home.

Washington’s next home game will not come until Nov. 3. That makes Friday’s game a big one for the Caps as they try to secure two points before hitting the road.

“It's definitely a big game,” Reirden said. “We want to build on some of the things we were able to accomplish last game. It's difficult anytime you go out west with time changes and different stuff. We know that [Florida is] going to be a desperate team that hasn't had the start that they want and they're talented so it's an important game for us to go on the road on a winning note.”

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