Nationals

Pass defense will play key role in SEC title race

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Pass defense will play key role in SEC title race

Pass defense quietly has played a major role in who wins the national title.

During the Southeastern Conference's run of six consecutive championships, five of those champions ranked among the top two teams in the conference and the top four teams nationwide in pass efficiency defense.

The run-first SEC isn't known for throwing the ball all over the field, though that is changing. But SEC quarterbacks are effective when they do throw.

South Carolina's Connor Shaw and Alabama's A.J. McCarron are two of the nation's most efficient passers, and they could end up meeting in the SEC championship game.

Who wins the matchup - or even the chances of such a matchup occurring - likely depends on how well their respective teams defend the pass.

``I've always said I thought the thing that's different about this league was the pass rushers and the cover guys,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said. ``The combination of those things was a little better than other places. Everybody's got good receivers. Everybody's got good runners. There are lots of good quarterbacks. But I thought those two things were something that was a little better in this league.''

There's no doubt SEC quarterback play has improved this year.

McCarron, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Georgia's Aaron Murray all rank among the nation's top 16 quarterbacks in passing efficiency. Shaw would rank second nationally in that category, but he's one pass attempt shy of qualifying.

Even so, the conference race often comes down to which team has the best pass defense. Of the last six national champions that all came from the SEC, the only one that didn't finish among the nation's top four teams in pass efficiency defense was the Cam Newton-led 2010 Auburn squad that ranked ninth in the SEC and 76th nationally in that category.

That trend is unlikely to change this year.

Alabama topped the nation in pass efficiency defense while winning the national title last year and leads that category again this season. Just behind Alabama are Florida and LSU. Last year, the SEC had the nation's top four teams in pass efficiency defense: Alabama, South Carolina, LSU and Georgia.

Part of the reason for that dominance is because the SEC annually features some of the nation's top pass rushers. Even the SEC's own defensive backs are quick to credit their linemen.

``They do a great job of pressuring the passer, which makes the quarterback make quicker decisions than he wants to (and) maybe throws a bad ball every once in a while,'' LSU safety Eric Reid said. ``I've caught a couple picks that seemed like punt returns just because of the quarterback trying to get the ball off (under duress). So a lot of the credit - most of it - can probably go to the d-line.''

But the SEC also has produced plenty of NFL defensive backs during this dynasty.

The SEC had each of the last three winners of the Jim Thorpe Award given annually to the nation's top defensive back: Tennessee's Eric Berry in 2009, LSU's Patrick Peterson in 2010 and LSU's Morris Claiborne in 2011. Eight defensive backs from the SEC - the most of any conference - have been drafted in the first round over the last three years.

``Everybody in the SEC has athletes - especially in the secondary,'' Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks said. ``All the teams are so athletic on offense, you've got to have guys who can match up, guys who can play anywhere on the field. That's what you've got to have in this league so you can be ready for anything.''

In the most recent draft, Claiborne, Alabama safety Mark Barron, South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Alabama cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick were selected among the first 17 overall picks. LSU had to replace cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, a 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist removed from the Tigers' 2012 roster for a violation of team rules.

Even after losing all those stars, the SEC still boasts some of the nation's best defensive backs. Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, Reid and Banks are regarded as potential first-round draft picks.

``I really think you're going to get a lot of bigger, stronger, quicker DBs in the SEC,'' Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson said. ``Not that there's not guys like that in the other conferences, but there's going to be bigger numbers in the SEC. I think the type of receivers you go against on your own team is a factor. We had A.J. Green here pushing guys like (former star cornerback Brandon) Boykin.''

The connection between pass efficiency defense and SEC championships might seem odd for what's generally a run-oriented league. Of the 14 teams in the SEC this year, only Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee have attempted more passes than carries. Overall, 30 percent of the Football Bowl Subdivision teams throw the ball more than they run it.

Although most SEC teams prefer to run the ball, this league does feature plenty of quality quarterbacks. The SEC has come a long way since last year, when the league didn't have anyone ranked among the nation's 20 most efficient passers. Tennessee coach Derek Dooley calls it ``probably as experienced and talented a group as they've had in the league in a while.''

The list of SEC quarterbacks includes at least three probable early-round draft picks in Arkansas' Tyler Wilson, Tennessee's Tyler Bray and Georgia's Aaron Murray. But the quarterbacks enjoying the most team success don't throw nearly as often as those guys. This is one league in which it isn't a backhanded compliment to refer to a quarterback as a game manager.

Shaw averages fewer than 15 passes per game, but he completes more than three-quarters of his attempts. McCarron has thrown 12 touchdown passes without an interception. The SEC's other two unbeaten quarterbacks are Florida's Jeff Driskel and Mississippi State's Tyler Russell, who have been picked off just once each.

In the SEC, it's nice for a quarterback to be prolific, but it's better that he be efficient.

And those defenses that do the best job of limiting that efficiency often end up celebrating in January.

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AP Sports Writers David Brandt, Brett Martel, Charles Odum and John Zenor contributed to this report

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Nationals rally, but find themselves treading water again

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Nationals rally, but find themselves treading water again

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals lost to the Chicago Cubs, 6-5, Sunday to drop their record to 19-27. Here are five observations from the game…

1. A word about Anthony Rendon first.

His three-run homer dragged the Nationals to within 6-4 on Sunday night. He also walked and a soft liner off his bat was caught by a leaping Addison Russell at shortstop. He was stellar in the field. After an initial rusty patch when returning from the injured list, he is back to his normal self and one of the most dangerous hitters in the National League. He could finally be going to his first All-Star Game.

Second, a word about Howie Kendrick.

He homered -- again -- his seventh already this season. Things around the Nationals’ poor start are not great. They would be severely amplified if Kendrick wasn’t walking around with a .317 batting average and an almost 1.000 OPS.

Their work was not enough Sunday. The Cubs took a 4-0 lead early, then hung on late, spoiling the Nationals chance for a rare second consecutive series win.

2. “Little things” kicked in again Sunday.

A fourth-inning passed ball by Kurt Suzuki moved a runner to third with one out. Kyle Schwarber’s sacrifice fly drove him in.

Juan Soto’s late break from second with two outs in the sixth inning led to third base coach Bob Henley giving a rare stop sign at third base. Albert Almora Jr.’s throw for center field went soaring over bot the catcher and pitcher at home plate. If Soto broke early or Henley took his usual chance, another run would have scored.

The Nationals’ overall defense was cleaner Sunday. Rendon made multiple quality defensive plays, Brian Dozier also two slick stops. But, two smaller incidents flipped two runs in what became a 6-4 game.

3. Jeremy Hellickson is going in reverse.

He lasted just three innings Sunday, and was lucky to make it there. Hellickson opened the game by loading the bases via walks. Despite him laying the groundwork for a devastating first inning, he allowed just a run.

Runners made it to second and third to start the second inning, but just one scored. A leadoff homer for Anthony Rizzo bumped the Cubs’ lead to 3-0 in the third. Hellickson wiggled away from a double in the inning to finish his evening in arrears, 3-0.

He threw 64 pitches, just 30 strikes.

The outing was the second time this season Hellickson lasted just three innings in a start. He gave up five earned runs the last time. Four of his previous five outings delivered a Game Score of 34 or lower (50 is the starting point with potential to go up -- or down). A non-analytical measure of those outings is to simply call them uncompetitive.

The trouble for Washington is it has no clear option to replace Hellickson and his 6.23 ERA in the rotation, if it decided that was the best course of action going forward. Joe Ross could swap spots wit Hellickson, flipping Ross into the rotation and Hellickson into the bullpen. Kyle McGowin, called up from Triple-A Fresno on Friday, relieved Hellickson on Sunday. He’s not big-league ready.

Austin Voth is the only minor-league starter on the 40-man roster but not on the 25-man roster. Voth has a 3.89 ERA in Fresno this season.

4. Trevor Rosenthal continues to creep toward a return.

He threw a bullpen session in Nationals Park on Sunday after a day off Saturday. Rosenthal pitched in back-to-back games Thursday and Friday for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators.

Rosenthal is going to Harrisburg to throw another inning Monday, then be re-evaluated. He had another rough outing Friday for the Senators: ⅓ of an inning, 21 pitches, 11 strikes, a walk and hit allowed.

Nationals manager Davey Martinez said the misses were up and down in the zone. Rosenthal was previously pulling pitches to his left.

“I watched video,” Martinez said. “His mechanics are pretty good right now.”

Is he close to returning?

“I think he’s really close,” Martinez said. “We’ll see how this next outing goes for him.”

5. More progress for the injured.

Matt Adams (left shoulder strain) took 40 swings Sunday, felt good afterward, and is nearing a pre-game stint on the field, possibly Monday with the team in New York.

Ryan Zimmerman (plantar fasciitis) continues to swing and play defense. He was expected to run Sunday, the final step in his rehabilitation. He could be ready “very soon” according to Martinez.

Tony Sipp (oblique) took Sunday off after pitching an inning Saturday for Single-A Potomac.

Outfielder Andrew Stevenson (back spasms) was sent back to Triple-A Fresno on Sunday. He will begin playing games with the Grizzlies on Monday.

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Cubs drop protest, but not stance about Sean Doolittle's delivery

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Cubs drop protest, but not stance about Sean Doolittle's delivery

WASHINGTON -- Sunday afternoon’s discussions still revolved around Saturday night’s close, which Washington manager Davey Martinez referred to as a “fiasco” on Sunday.

Chicago manager Joe Maddon started a chaotic situation when he popped out of the dugout following Sean Doolittle’s first pitch in the ninth inning Saturday. Maddon contended Doolittle’s “toe-tap” was an illegal delivery, akin to when Chicago reliever Carl Edwards Jr. tried to add a pause in spring training, but was told the move was illegal.

The umpires told him, and Doolittle, the delivery was legal. Chicago filed a protest with the league. After consulting with Major League Baseball and MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer, Joe Torre, the Cubs dropped their protest Sunday morning.

A point of differentiation is whether the pitcher is taking a second step. Umpires previously determined Edwards was taking a second step. They determined Doolittle was not. This is a judgment call for the umpires and is not reviewable.

Official Baseball Rule 5.07(a) states in part: “The pitcher may not take a second step toward home plate with either foot or otherwise reset his pivot foot in his delivery of the pitch. If there is a runner, or runners, on base it is a balk under Rule 6.02(a); if the bases are unoccupied it is an illegal pitch under Rule 6.02(b).”

The league, according to Maddon, said there is a difference between Edwards placing his full foot on the ground and Doolittle grazing the mound with a cleat when he delivered. Maddon continued to not agree with the interpretation.

“We went through the whole process,” Maddon said. “Our guys in the office spoke to MLB and I talked to Mr. Torre. The whole thing I wanted to really get done was protect Carl. I really didn’t anticipate a whole lot to be done with it. Even though I still don’t agree with the conclusion, because I think it’s exactly what Carl did, only a different version of it. But the point was, I would not be a good parent if I had not spoken up for my guy. And that’s what I was doing last night and, again, it’s just to eliminate any gray area there just for future because it’s going to happen again down the road somewhere and you’re just trying to delineate what is right and what is wrong. In my mind, it wasn’t a judgment call, I thought it was black-and-white. It wasn’t gray.”

Maddon said multiple times that Doolittle tapped with his toe in addition to grazing the mound, both of which, he contended, were not legal or different than Edwards' attempt at deception.

The congenial Doolittle was steamed postgame Saturday and remained irritated Sunday. Saturday, he took multiple shots at Maddon during his postgame commentary. He also taunted the idea when throwing warmup pitches while Maddon argued with umpires by making exaggerated kicks with his leg and multiple stops with his foot. Doolittle switched to a delivery without any stops -- one he often uses -- after the protest as a way to show Maddon he didn’t need the tweak to be successful.

“In that moment, he's not trying to do anything other than rattle me and it was kind of tired,” Doolittle said Saturday. “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."

Asked Sunday if Doolittle’s comments were relayed to him, Maddon smiled and said yes.

“Listen, I have no issue with that whatsoever,” Maddon said. “We’re all emotional. I’ve said a lot of things I didn’t want to say years ago -- even in this ballpark. I think if he understood the entire context, he might have had a different opinion. Even if he was the manager himself -- if he was me -- or if he was being protected by his manager under similar circumstances, I think his stance may be different.”

No one -- the league, Maddon or Doolittle -- changed their perspective a day later.

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