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Patriots hoping for return of two key players

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Patriots hoping for return of two key players

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) With six straight victories and their fourth consecutive AFC East title already wrapped up, the New England Patriots are playing perhaps their best football of the season.

And a large chunk of their recent run has come without two of their top players.

So, imagine the big boost the Patriots will receive from having one of their best players on each side of the ball return for what is being billed as the game of the year.

After practicing in a limited capacity all week, starting left guard Logan Mankins and standout rookie right defensive end Chandler Jones are both listed as questionable for Monday night's much-hyped matchup against the first-place Houston Texans (11-1), a game with major playoff ramifications for both teams.

``Just got out there a little bit this week and tried to move around. We'll see where it goes from today,'' said Mankins, who injured his ankle in the second half of New England's victory over Buffalo on Nov. 11 and has missed the last three games. ``We were just trying to do as much as we can. I can't do everything yet, so I guess we might find out Monday.''

Jones, the 21st overall selection in the draft and considered by many to still be a top candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors with six sacks, skipped the last two games with an ankle injury suffered during the first quarter of the Patriots (9-3) win over Indianapolis on Nov. 18.

His status, he said, rests in the hands of coach Bill Belichick.

``Ready to play against the Texans,'' Jones said. ``We went out there and we won a championship and I wasn't out there. But I'm still thankful to be a part of this team.''

Mankins, a four-time Pro Bowl player, has missed five games this season with various ailments, the second-most of his eight-year career.

``It's been a couple games here and then miss a couple and then a couple here, miss a few. It's just one of those years I can't get on track yet,'' he said. ``Every game you want to be out there, you just got to wait until you're ready to get out there.''

The pair couldn't have picked a more perfect time to return, either.

Despite playing a pivotal part in the Patriots' top-ranked offense and valiantly protecting quarterback Tom Brady amid constant change due to injuries, the Patriots offensive line certainly will be bolstered with Mankins out there as they prepare to face their stiffest test of the season.

Houston defensive end J.J. Watt is wreaking havoc on just about every opposing offense he's faced thus far. The second-year standout ranks second in the league with 16 1/2 sacks and has knocked down 15 passes this year.

Watt's sensational season also has overshadowed the strong play of defensive end Antonio Smith, who has five sacks of his own, along with Watt forming one of the most feared pass rushes in the league.

``He's a guy that's getting overlooked down there,'' Mankins said. ``J.J. Watt's getting a lot of attention deservedly, but Antonio Smith's a very good player. He's a slippery guy inside that has good quickness, good power and he really understands how to work blockers, so he does a good job.

``They get ahead and teams have to start throwing it to catch back up, so that plays right into their strength. They're a great pass-rushing team.''

Houston boasts a strong offense, too. In fact, quarterback Matt Schaub, running back Arian Foster and wide receiver Andre Johnson have combined to lead the league's second-highest scoring attack - behind only New England - making Jones' return all the more important.

``They have a great offensive line, they have great wide receivers and they're quarterback's good,'' Jones said. ``Our job is just to bottle those guys up and eliminate the big play.''

Mankins' extended absence has been somewhat of a surprise, though.

Last season he played through a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, something he admitted during training camp this offseason, moments before acknowledging his extremely high pain threshold. So, playing in just more than half of New England's games this year may point more to the severity of the injury.

``There's some injuries you can play through, some restrict your ability to play,'' Mankins explained. ``When it restricts your ability, you can't play. You're just going to hurt the team if you just get beat all the time.

``It's been tough,'' he added. ``But it is what it is. You learn to deal with it. I've been pretty fortunate most of my career. I guess it happens to everyone sooner or later.''?

Of course, Mankins wants to suit up. However, he won't jeopardize the rest of the season to play in a game on Monday night, against one of the best teams in the league, with possible postseason seeding on the line.

``When I'm healthy, I'll come back,'' he said. ``Whether it's this week, next week, the following week, it's up to my body when I'm going to play again.''

Jones, on the other hand, seems ready to roll for his first career Monday night game, and the Patriots lone one this season.

``It's a primetime game. You know, Monday Night Football, you grew up watching Monday Night Football,'' he said. ``And for the Patriots to have the opportunity to go out there and showcase our talent on a Monday Night Football game, that's a great opportunity.''

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5 things you should know about new Nationals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera

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USA TODAY Sports

5 things you should know about new Nationals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals traded for Royals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera this evening. 

Not only did the Nationals trade for Kelvin Herrera, but they did so without losing Juan Soto, Victor Robles, or Andrew Stevenson. The first two were never in any real danger of being traded for a relief pitcher who will be a free agent at year's end, but the Nats escaped only giving up their 10th and 11th ranked prospects:

On the surface, this deal looks exceptional for the Nationals. Herrera is another back-of-the-bullpen type that only further deepens the Nats' options in that department. Here are a handful of things you should know about the Nationals' newest pitcher:

1. Herrera's strikeout "issue" is complicated 

Herrera, like many other closers over the last half-decade, has made his name in strikeouts. He topped out at a 30.4 percent strikeout rate in 2016, and has a 23.4 percent clip for his career. His K% this season sits at 23.2 percent, which is both higher than last season and lower than his career average. 

People will look at his dramatic K/9 drop as a red flag, but "per/9" stats are flawed and not generally a worthwhile stat to build an argument around. A pitcher who gets knocked around for five runs in an inning -- but gets three strikeouts -- can have the same K/9 of a different (much more efficient) pitcher who strikes out the side in order. 

2. Herrera has basically stopped walking batters 

His career BB% sits at 7.1 percent. His highest clip is nine percent (2014, 2015) and his lowest was a shade over four percent (2016). 

This season, he's walking batters at a two percent  rate. In 27 games this season, he's walked two batters. Two! 

3. The jury seems to still be out on how good of a year he's had so far

Analytics are frustrating. On one hand, they can serve wonderfully as tools to help peel back the curtains and tell a deeper story - or dispel lazy narratives. On the other hand, they can be contradictory, confusing, and at times downright misleading. 

Take, for instance, Herrera's baseline pitching stats. His ERA sits at 1.05, while his FIP sits at 2.62. On their own, both numbers are impressive. On their own, both numbers are All-Star level stats. 

When you stack them against each other, however, the picture turns negative. While ERA is the more common stat, it's widely accepted that FIP more accurately represents a pitcher's true value (ERA's calculation makes the same per/9 mistakes that were mentioned above). 

More often than not, when a pitcher's ERA is lower than his FIP, that indicates said pitcher has benefited from luck. 

Throw in a 3.51 xFIP (which is the same as FIP, but park-adjusted) and we suddenly have a real mess on our hands. Is he the pitcher with the great ERA, the pitcher with the Very Good FIP, or the pitcher with the medicore xFIP? 

4. He was a fastball pitcher, and then he wasn't, and now he is again

Take a look at Herrera's pitch usage over his career in Kansas City:

In only three years, he's gone from throwing a sinker 31 percent of the time to completely giving up on the pitch. That's pretty wild. 

Since 2014, he's gone to the slider more and more in every year. 

His current fastball usage would be the highest of his career. He only appeared in two games during the 2011 season, so those numbers aren't reliable. Going away from the sinker probably helps explain why his Ground Ball rate has dropped 10 percentage points, too. 

5. The Nats finally have the bullpen they've been dreaming about for years

Doolittle, Herrera, Kintzler, and Madson is about as deep and talented as any bullpen in baseball.

Justin Miller, Sammy Solis, and Wander Suero all have flashed serious potential at points throughout the year. Austin Voth is waiting for roster expansion in September. 

The Nats have been trying to build this type of bullpen for the better part of the last decade. Health obviously remains an important factor, but Rizzo's got the deepest pen of his time in D.C. 

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MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

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USA TODAY Sports

MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

Will Todd Reirden replace Barry Trotz as head coach of the Washington Capitals?

Based on what GM Brian MacLellan said Monday, it certainly sounds like it’s Reirden’s job to lose.

“We’re going to start with Todd here,” MacLellan said. “I think we’ve been grooming him to be a head coach, whether for us or someone else.”

“We’ll see how the talk goes with him and we’ll make a decision based on that,” MacLellan added. “If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd. And if it doesn’t, we’ll open it up a little bit.”

MacLellan said he isn’t sure exactly when the interview with Reirden will take place. The front office needs a few days to regroup. It’s also a busy stretch in hockey’s offseason. In the coming two weeks, MacLellan will direct the NHL draft in Dallas, monitor development camp in Arlington and then call the shots when free agency begins on July 1.  

“We need to take a breather here but I think Todd is a good candidate for it,” MacLellan said. “I’d like to sit down with Todd and have a normal interview, head coaching interview. I think most of our discussions are just casual. It’s about hockey in general. But I’d like to do a formal interview with him and just see if there’s differences or how we’re seeing things the same and if he’s a possibility for the head coach.”

Reirden, 46, spent the past four seasons on Trotz’s bench. He was elevated to associate coach prior to the 2016-17 season after coming up just short in his pursuit of the head coaching position in Calgary.

Reirden’s primary responsibility on Trotz’s staff was overseeing the defense and Washington’s perennially potent power play.

Prior to joining the Capitals in 2014, he was an assistant coach for four seasons with the Penguins. And before that, he spent a couple of seasons as the head coach of AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins’ top minor league affiliate.

A native of Deerfield, Ill., Reirden also had a lengthy professional career that included 183 NHL games with the Oilers, Blues, Thrashers and Coyotes.

Asked what he’s looking for in the Caps’ next head coach, MacLellan said he’s looking for a forward-thinker, a strong communicator and a players’ coach.

Reirden is all of those things.

“Someone that's up to date on the modern game,” MacLellan said. “Someone that's progressive, looking to try different things. Someone that has a good relationship with players. They communicate, can teach, make players better. It's becoming a developmental league where guys are coming in not fully developed products and we need a guy that can bring young players along because more and more we're going to use young players as the higher end guys make more money.”

One of the side benefits of elevating Reirden is the fact he already has a strong relationship with many of the current players, meaning there won’t be much upheaval as the Caps look to defend their championship.

“It could be a natural transition,” MacLellan said. “But once we sit down and talk face to face about all the little small details in the team, I'll have a better feel for it.”

MacLellan said a decision on the other assistant coaches—Lane Lambert, Blaine Forsythe, Scott Murray, Brett Leonhardt and Tim Ohashi—will be made after the next head coach is named.

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