Nationals

Pagano back to coach Colts after cancer treatment

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Pagano back to coach Colts after cancer treatment

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Chuck Pagano stepped to the podium Monday, hugged his team owner, thanked his family for its support and wiped a tear from his eye.

He might, finally, turn out the lights in his office, too.

Nearly three months to the day after being diagnosed with leukemia, the Colts' first-year coach returned to a team eager to reunite with a boss healthy enough to go back to work.

``I told you my best day of my life was July 1, 1989,'' Pagano said, referring to his wedding date. ``Today was No. 2. Getting to pull up, drive in, get out of my car, the key fob still worked. I was beginning to question whether it would or not. When I asked for Bruce to take over, I asked for him to kick some you-know-what and to do great. Damn Bruce, you had to go and win nine games? Tough act to follow. Tough act to follow. Best in the history of the NFL. That's what I have to come back to.''

The comment turned tears into the laughter everyone expected on such a festive occasion.

For Pagano and the Colts, Monday morning was as precious as anyone could have imagined when Pagano took an indefinite leave to face the biggest opponent of his life, cancer.

In his absence, all the Colts was win nine of 12 games, make a historic turnaround and clinch a playoff spot all before Sunday's regular-season finale against Houston, which they pegged as the day they hoped to have Pagano back. If all goes well at practice this week, Pagano will be on the sideline for the first time since a Week 3 loss to Jacksonville.

Pagano endured three rounds of chemotherapy to put his cancer in remission.

That Pagano's return came less than 24 hours after Indy (10-5) locked up the No. 5 seed in the AFC and the day before Christmas seemed fitting, too.

``I know Chuck is ready for this challenge. In speaking to his doctor multiple times, I know that the time is right for him to grab the reins, get the head coaching cap on and begin the journey,'' owner Jim Irsay said. ``It's been a miraculous story. It really is a book. It's a fairytale. It's a Hollywood script. It's all those things but it's real.''

The reality is that he's returning to a vastly different team than the one he turned over to Arians, his long-time friend and first assistant coaching hire.

Back then, the Colts were 1-2 and most of the so-called experts had written them off as one of the league's worst teams. Now, they're ready to show the football world that they can be just as successful under Pagano as they were under Arians, who tied the NFL record for wins after a midseason coaching change.

Pagano also has changed.

The neatly-trimmed salt-and-pepper hair and trademark goatee that were missing in November have slowly returned, and the thinner man who appeared to be catching his breath during a postgame speech in early November, looked and sounded as good as ever Monday.

He repeatedly thanked fans for their prayers and letters, the organization and his family for their unwavering help and promised to provide comfort and support to other people who are facing similar fights. During one poignant moment that nearly brought out tears again, Pagano even recounted a letter sent to him by a 9-year-old child who suggested he suck on ice chips and strawberry Popsicles in the hospital and advised him to be nice to the nurses regardless of how he felt - and he never even paused.

``I feel great, my weight is back, my energy is back and again, it's just a blessing to be back here,'' Pagano said.

In the minds of Colts players and coaches, Pagano never really left.

He continually watched practice tape and game film on his computer, used phone calls and text messages to regularly communicate with players and occasionally delivered a pregame or postgame speech to his team.

``He texted me and called me so much, it was like he was standing there in my face every day,'' said receiver Reggie Wayne, who has been friends with Pagano since the two were working together at the University of Miami.

But the Colts found plenty of other ways to keep Pagano's battle in the forefront.

They began a fundraising campaign for leukemia research, calling it Chuckstrong. Players had stickers with the initials CP on their locker room nameplates, and Arians wore an orange ribbon on his baseball cap during games. Orange is the symbolic color for leukemia. At one point, nearly three dozen players shaved their heads to show their ailing coach they were with him.

That's not all.

Arians and first-year general manager Ryan Grigson decided to leave the lights on in Pagano's office until he returned. Pagano noted the team even installed plastic clips to make sure those lights were not mistakenly turned off while he was gone. Those clips were removed when Pagano arrived Monday morning.

And Arians said nobody sat in the front seat of the team bus.

``He's always been our head coach,'' Arians said.

So after getting medical clearance from his oncologist, Dr. Larry Cripe, to return with no restrictions, Pagano couldn't wait to get to the office Monday morning.

Arians arrived at 7 a.m., three hours early for the scheduled team meeting. By then, Pagano had already driven past the inflatable Colts player with the words ``Welcome Back Chuck'' printed on its chest and was back in his office preparing for the Texans.

Players showed up a couple of hours later, and when the torch was passed from Arians back to Pagano, players gave their returning coach a standing ovation that Wayne said was well-deserved.

All Pagano wants to do now is emulate the success Arians and his players have had this season.

``I asked him (Arians) if he would lead this team and this ballclub and this organization and take over the reins,'' Pagano said. ``What a masterful, masterful job you did Bruce. You carried the torch and all you went out and did was win nine ballgames. You got us our 10th win yesterday and you got us into the playoffs. You did it with dignity and you did it with class. You're everything that I always knew you were and more.''

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3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

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USA TODAY

3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

Nationals fans are teetering on the edge. 

On one hand, the Nats are 3.5 games out of first place after a 10-week span full of injuries and underperformance. The team just acquired All-Star closer Kelvin Herrera, and their 19-year-old left fielder looks like an All-Star already. 

On the other hand, doom is imminent. The Monstars stole Bryce Harper's abilities at some point over the last three weeks, Steven Strasburg can't stay healthy, and the offense is pushing everyone's patience to the limit. 

So who's overperforming? Who's underperforming? Who's out there just trying their very best? LET'S LIST. 

Three Up

1. Juan Soto

Our large young son Juan continues to impress. He's now hitting .325/.411/.602 with a 1.013 OPS in 95 plate appearances over 25 games. That means we're mercifully starting to leave the 'fluky start' narrative behind. He's been the best hitter on the Nationals by a wide margain since he got called up - although that's perhaps more of an indicitment on the rest of the lineup than it is on Soto. Still, in less than a month he's probably earned the starting left field spot for the rest of the summer. Not bad. 

2. Justin Miller

Miller is 31, on his third team in four years, and owns a career ERA north of 4.50. Despite all of this, Miller's been the best reliever in baseball since coming up for the Nats. Of relief pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched (we hear your sample size comment and are not going to acknolwdge it), no one has a better FIP than Miller (0.64). He's striking out over half of the batters he sees and has yet to walk a single person this year. All the elite relief pitchers are already at 30-40 innings pitched, so Miller has a while to go before these stats mean a whole lot. If he stays even 75 percent as good as he's started, the Nats' bullpen looks scary. 

3. Michael A. Taylor

Have yourself a week or two, Michael A.! The centerfielder is slashing .500/.556/.583 over the last 14 days, the first of many "Maybe He Put It Together?!" runs we'll see from him this year. He also has six stolen bases during that span, more than anyone else on the team. His plate discipline has been better over the last two weeks, with a BB% a shade over 11 percent - only behind Juan Soto for highest on the team. Juan Soto, man. 

Three Down

1. Bryce Harper

A couple things here. We'll start with the admission that Bryce Harper is obviously not having a superb year. We've already briefly touched on why looking at only his batting average is a lazy way of judging his season, and we stand by that. With that said - Harper's had a bad season. The last month has been particularly painful. There's no way of dressing up a .189/.278/.400 slashline over the last 30 days. Still, his contact has been as great as his luck terrible - there's a positive regression coming, we promise. 

2. Pedro Severino 

And you think Harper's been slumping?? Over the same 30 days, Severino has hit .098/.179/.115 with a .294 OPS. He's essentially daring the Nats to put together a trade package for JT Realmuto at this point. He has six hits over his last 68 plate appearances and five of them are singles. 

3. Shawn Kelley

Kelley owns a 6.09 FIP and a 4.32 ERA over the last month (10 games, 8.1 innings pitched). He's walking close to nine percent of the hitters he's faced during that time. He has a 12.5 HR/FB over the last month. With the trade for Kelvin Herrera and the sudden emergence of Justin Miller, Kelley's role going forward isn't quite clear anymore. 

MORE NATS NEWS:

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Wizards 2018 NBA Draft prospect profile: Jerome Robinson

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USA TODAY Sports

Wizards 2018 NBA Draft prospect profile: Jerome Robinson

The Washington Wizards hold the 15th and 44th overall picks in the 2018 NBA Draft. Here is the latest in our series on draft prospects projected to be picked around where the Wizards will select...

2018 NBA Draft Wizards Prospect Preview: Jerome Robinson

School: Boston College
Position: Shooting guard
Age: 21
Height: 6-5
Weight: 188
Wingspan: 6-7
Max vertical: N/A

2017/18 stats: 20.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.1 bpg, 48.5 FG%, 40.9 3PT% (2.3 3PT/5.7 3PA), 83.0 FT%
Player comparison: Danny Green
Projections: NBC Sports Washington 29th, NBADraft.net 16th, Bleacher Report 19th, Sports Illustrated 17th

5 things to know:

*A three-year player at BC, Robinson developed into a big-time scorer before making the leap to the NBA. He averaged 18.7 points as a sophomore and then 20.7 points as a junior while improving his shooting percentages across the board. He went from 42.3 percent from the field as a sophomore to 48.5 in 2017-18.

*Robinson turned himself into an excellent three-point shooter. After shooting just 33.3 percent as a sophomore, he got that up to 40.9 percent as a junior and on 5.7 attempts per game. That trajectory bodes well for Robinson's chances at the next level.

*He has a quick release on his jumper, giving him the ability to be effective on catch-and-shoot plays off screens. Robinson could develop into a reliable scorer who doesn't need the ball in his hands as a primary focus of the offense. He also showed the ability to throw down some powerful dunks and finish with creativity at the rim. He didn't record a vertical leap at the NBA Combine, but playing above and around the rim didn't appear to be a problem in college.

*Though it didn't show in his last season at Boston College, Robinson was adept at forcing turnovers in his first two years. He averaged 1.6 steals per game across his freshman and sophomore seasons and 16 times in his career had three steals or more in a game.

*Questions for Robinson would include his versatility and speed. Some draft evaluators wonder if he will be able to get separation off the dribble at the NBA level. Also, he put up decent rebounding and assists numbers in college but didn't exactly stand out in either category.

Fit with Wizards: Robinson would give the Wizards depth at the shooting guard position and they need that. He could help Bradley Beal pare down his minutes and offer a scoring punch off the Wizards' bench. The Wizards could use a reliable shooter to help space the floor for Kelly Oubre, Jr. and others in the second unit.

The problems with Robinson's fit would be his lack of positional versatility and what appears to be a relatively low ceiling. He's not the freak athlete that some of his counterparts are at shooting guard. If the Wizards are choosing between Robinson and guys like Zhaire Smith and Lonnie Walker IV, they could view the latter two as more enticing because of their potential. Robinson would represent a safer pick while others could pay off big-time and have a greater impact on the franchise in the long-term.

Best highlight video:

More draft prospect profiles:

Kevin Knox, PF, Kentucky

Miles Bridges, SF, Michigan State

Robert Williams, PF/C, Texas A&M

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky

Zhaire Smith, SG, Texas Tech

Landry Shamet, PG/SG, Wichita State

Gary Trent, Jr., SG, Duke

Lonnie Walker IV, SG, Miami

Anfernee Simons, PG/SG, IMG Academy

Khyri Thomas, SG, Creighton

Chandler Hutchison, SG/SF, Boise State

Kevin Huerter, SG, Maryland

Mitchell Robinson, C, Western Kentucky

Troy Brown, SG/SF, Oregon

Donte DiVincenzo, SG, Villanova

Moritz Wagner, PF/C, Michigan

Aaron Holiday, PG, UCLA

Keita Bates-Diop, SF, Ohio State

For more on the NBA Draft, check out our latest episode of the Wizards Tipoff podcast:

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