Nationals

No. 8 Gonzaga, No. 13 Butler ready to square off

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No. 8 Gonzaga, No. 13 Butler ready to square off

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Gonzaga served as the model program for college basketball's non-power conference schools for more than decade.

Butler took that blueprint, revised it and came up with even better results.

On Saturday, college basketball fans will finally get to see America's two biggest little schools play each other at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse with all the trimmings: A prime-time tip and a national audience on ESPN.

``You talk about the Final Four, bucket list. You talk about Maui (Invitational), bucket list, Preseason NIT, bucket list,'' Butler coach Brad Stevens said. ``So when (College) GameDay comes to town, you play when they tell you to play.''

The showcase also happens to pit two of America's best teams, No. 8 Gonzaga and No. 13 Butler, and both are on a roll.

Two-time national runner-up Butler (15-2, 3-0 Atlantic 10) has won 12 straight since losing to Illinois in Maui two months ago. It has already upset then-No. 1 Indiana and then-No. 9 North Carolina, as well as three traditional A-10 front-runners in St. Joseph's, Dayton and Richmond. It has beaten teams from the ACC (North Carolina), Big East (Marquette) SEC (Vanderbilt) and two Big Ten schools (Indiana and Northwestern), none of them at Hinkle.

A win this weekend would make this the first Butler team to beat three top 10 teams in one season.

One thing fans won't see is Butler's top scorer, Rotnei Clarke, who will miss his second straight game with a severely sprained neck. It didn't bother them in Wednesday's 62-47 win over Richmond, and the Bulldogs insist they won't do anything different Saturday, either.

``It's just our next game,'' said 7-foot center Andrew Smith, the only active college player to start in two national championship games. ``They're a great team, but we'll play just as hard as we always do.''

The Zags, meanwhile, are making a cross-country journey less than 48 hours after playing at Portland.

Gonzaga (17-1, 4-0 West Coast Conference) has won eight straight, is off to the best start in school history and has its own laundry list of big-time wins. The Zags have beaten Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and West Virginia of the Big 12, Clemson of the ACC and Washington State of the Pac-12. Like Butler, Gonzaga's only loss came to Illinois.

Unlike Butler, the Zags have never reached a Final Four and haven't played in a regional final since 1999.

Maybe that will change in 2013. These Zags are big, strong and deep as Portland found out when 7-foot center Kelly Olynyk, the WCC's top scorer, spent 14 minutes of the first half on the bench because of foul trouble. Gonzaga still won 71-49.

``They have the No. 1 frontcourt in the country,'' Portland coach Eric Reveno said after the game. ``We forced them to go to Plan B, and their Plan B is almost as good as Plan A.''

What Butler and Gonzaga have done goes far beyond their campuses.

Both have consistently brought in players who fit their systems rather than Top 100 recruits, and they manage to keep those guys around campus long enough to develop their talent. And they did this while scheduling the big boys of college basketball.

Other non-BCS conference programs took the cue and wound up with similar results.

A glance at this week's Top 25 shows Creighton at No. 12, San Diego State at No. 15, New Mexico at No. 19 and Virginia Commonwealth at No. 22. Another Missouri Valley Conference school, Wichita State, was ranked last week.

George Mason, VCU and Butler have all made Final Four appearances in the past decade. Ohio University of the Mid-American Conference came within a whisker of upsetting North Carolina and going to the regional final last season.

With all these non-traditional teams in the Top 25 now, it could happen again.

And the mantra, from Indianapolis to Spokane, Wash., to Omaha, Neb., sounds the same.

``We'll play anyone anywhere as long as they'll come back to Omaha,'' Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. ``Gonzaga isn't playing anyone anywhere without a return trip unless it's on a neutral floor somewhere. That's something we'd be open to do as well. We have got 17,000-plus coming to our games. We've got to play some home games. We owe that to our fans. We'll continue. ``

McDermott acknowledges he's reached out to Butler and Gonzaga but has not yet been able to get either on the schedule.

Gonzaga won last year's meeting with Butler 71-55, and Stevens did have some second thoughts about keeping the second straight meeting on the schedule.

``We scheduled this before we were in the Atlantic 10 and when I looked at the schedule in September, I thought, `I'm an idiot,''' Stevens said. ``I should have scaled it back.''

He didn't, and college basketball fans might get to see one of the best games all season.

``We have unbelievable respect for Gonzaga and it has been that way for a long time,'' Stevens said. ``But we're going to do what we do. We have half a season still ahead and we have to do what we do.''

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AP Sports Writer Eric Olson in Omaha, Neb., contributed to this report.

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What to watch as Nats continue three-game series against Marlins

What to watch as Nats continue three-game series against Marlins

This is the Nationals’ first time in Miami this season, and the team finished with a 3-2 loss against the Marlins on Friday night. Here are a few things to look for as they enter the second game of the three-game series against the Floridians: 

  1. Friday night’s situational hitting was poor, NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas reported. The Nats left 10 runners on base in a 3-2 loss to the Miami Marlins.However, the Nationals’ offense has changed this season. This was exemplified in Friday’s series opener against the Marlins, in which both Adam Eaton and Victor Robles bunted to get hits.
  2. Eaton singled on a bunt in the first inning, eventually scoring on a Juan Soto RBI single, while Robles also reached base safely in the third following Eaton’s strategy and then stole a base. These creative plays helped get men on base, but again, more often than not they stayed there. Brian Dozier hit his second home run of the season in the seventh inning, a solo shot which gave the Nats their second and final run of the night. Dozier had a rough start to the season, and after Friday’s game, he has just two RBIs – both via solo homers. He has a batting average of .182, and he’s lost playing time to Howie Kendrick as the season has moved forward. Kendrick has a batting average of .477, the highest on the roster.
  3. Anthony Rendon continued his hit streak, extending it to 17 games with a double Friday. This is the longest hitting streak in the MLB this season, as well as the third baseman’s personal record. Within the organization, Rendon is chasing Hall-of-Famer Heinie Manush’s record, which stretched to 33 consecutive hits in 1933. Can he get another on Saturday?

 

Download the MyTeams app for coverage from NBC Sports Washington of the Nationals/Marlins game on Saturday. The game broadcast will be at 6:10 PM ET on 106.7 the Fan and MASN2. 

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Middling Anibal Sanchez and quiet bats do Nationals in against Marlins

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Middling Anibal Sanchez and quiet bats do Nationals in against Marlins

The Washington Nationals lost to the Miami Marlins, 3-2, Friday night to drop back to 9-9. Here are five observations from the game...

1. For all the offseason efforts at improvement, winning the National League East could come down to its one member which is trying to lose.

The four spenders each play Miami 19 times. By the end, going 11-8 against the in-the-tank Marlins may become a lamentable part of some team’s 2019 legacy. They either brought in a marquee pitcher, a generational outfielder or a former MVP third baseman. But they didn’t do enough against the Marlins, costing themselves the single, taut playoff spot that emerges from the division. It’s a viable storyline to project.

The Nationals took their first negative step toward that fate Friday in a 3-2 loss to the Marlins.

The situational hitting was poor -- Washington left 10 runners on base. The starting pitching was so-so -- Anibal Sanchez took the loss. The bullpen made one dire mistake -- Matt Grace’s first pitch hit left-hander Curtis Granderson with the bases loaded, forcing in the decisive run. The luck wasn’t great -- Caleb Smith, a quality left-hander marooned in Miami as the staff’s best pitcher, was on turn. Anticipate him representing Miami at the All-Star Game this season.

Brian Dozier homered. Mark that in the positive column. Joe Ross pitched two innings of quality relief. Put him next to Dozier.

Otherwise, the loss was sigh-worthy for a team trying to lurch forward, ending its up-and-down run of the first three weeks.

2. Another day, another hit for Anthony Rendon.

His sixth-inning double extended his hitting streak to 17 games, the longest in Major League Baseball this season. It’s also an extension of a personal best for Rendon.

Rendon’s 15 extra-base hits in 17 games is a Nationals/Expos record.

Who is he chasing for the organization’s hit streak record? Hall-of-Famer Heinie Manush, who hit safely in 33 consecutive games back in 1933.

Manush played for the Senators from 1930-1935. He hit .336 when he set the Washington record for consecutive game with a hit. He led the league in triples (17) and hits (221) that season.

Manush won a batting title in 1925 when he hit .378 for Detroit. Rendon is currently hitting .377 in the opening weeks of the season.

3. Sanchez was ok. Not great, not terrible. Just ok.

He lasted 5 ⅓ innings, allowed five hits, three earned runs, walked four and struck out six. His ERA is 4.91.

Regression for Sanchez this season was expected. His 2.83 ERA in Atlanta last season came strongly against the current of his previous pitching. Sanchez had a 5.67 ERA over the three prior seasons.

However, this has been a leap back, a full two runs in arrears of last season’s ERA. More troubling than the ERA is Sanchez’s path through lineups. His walk rate is up, his strikeout rate down.

As the season moves along, a comparison point for Sanchez will be the results of left-hander Wade Miley in Houston. The Nationals made a multi-year offer to Miley which was better than the offer he eventually settled on with the Astros, according to a source. Miley ended up signing for just one year in Houston because the free agent market went south, and Washington quickly pivoted to Sanchez. Keeping track of the two via ERA-plus (which accounts for park factors) during the season will be a fun exercise. Coming into Friday, Miley was by far the better pitcher in that department, 129 to 95. Another bloated outing from Sanchez only increased that gap.

4. The Nationals hoped to play a different brand of offense this season. They wanted to deploy more athleticism, using speed and contact to produce runs.

They took the idea to the extreme Friday. Adam Eaton and Victor Robles both bunted for hits. Eaton scored Washington’s first run after reaching base via his drag bunt up the first base line.

Robles stole second and ended up on third following his bunt in the same direction in the third inning.

Creative work at the plate for both.

5. Another bullpen twist hit Friday. Austen Williams was placed on the 10-day injured list because of a sprained right AC joint. Austin Adams was called up to replace him.

Williams had a disastrous outing Wednesday in the Nationals’ 9-6 win over the Giants. He allowed four earned runs -- on two home runs -- after the Nationals entered the ninth inning with a 9-2 lead. Williams’ inability to get an out in the ninth eventually forced closer Sean Doolittle into a game he never should have entered.

Doolittle’s entrance also complicated the current series in Miami. He pitched back-to-back games to close the series against San Francisco. His Friday availability was in question because of that, though the Nationals didn’t end up needing him.

The right-handed Adams, 27, joins the team from Triple-A Fresno. He struck out 12, allowed a hit and didn’t give up an earned run in his six innings with the Grizzlies.

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