Nationals

Rocky start has Packers feeling sense of urgency

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Rocky start has Packers feeling sense of urgency

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) The defense is giving up big chunks of yardage - again. Injuries are piling up. Even the offense, which has carried the Green Bay Packers the last two years, is suspect.

A year after opening the season 13-0, the Packers are in danger of letting the season get away from them. At 2-3 (yes, that includes that loss in Seattle that wasn't really a loss), they face something of a must-win game Sunday night when they play the unbeaten Houston Texans.

``It's a bit too early'' to say that, defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. ``A lot of the talk - people are used to seeing us win, and they're never used to seeing us in this position. It's just human for most people to think it's a must-win game.

``It's a big one,'' Raji added. ``We want to have it, and hopefully we can come out with something good.''

The Packers' early struggles may seem like a shock, coming just two years after their Super Bowl run and on the heels of last year's 15-1 regular-season record. But Green Bay has lost five of its last nine games dating back to last season and, if you look closely, signs were there that trouble was coming.

Though the Packers had an NFL-best 31 interceptions last year and tied for the league lead with 38 total takeaways, they also gave up an NFL-high 6,585 yards of offense, more than 410 yards per game. They're somewhat improved this year, but the 344 yards a game they're allowing still put them in the bottom half of the NFC.

They gave up 464 yards last weekend alone, including 362 yards passing to Indianapolis Colts rookie Andrew Luck. Luck drove the Colts 80 yards in the final 4 minutes before connecting with Reggie Wayne on the go-ahead touchdown with 35 seconds left. The Colts scored 27 points in the second half after trailing 21-3 at halftime.

Clay Matthews leads the NFC in sacks with eight, and the Packers have five takeaways. But that figure could probably be doubled if not for dropped interceptions, penalties and, yes, better officiating.

The larger problem, however, is the offense.

Unlike last year, when Green Bay could count on Aaron Rodgers and Co. making up for any defensive flaws, the Packers have yet to find their groove. They're averaging just 5.2 yards per play. They haven't had a 100-yard receiver or rusher yet. The 21 sacks allowed are more than any NFL team besides Arizona.

``We've been inconsistent,'' offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga said. ``I don't think you can pinpoint one thing. We just haven't played to our capability, I think that's evident.''

Even Rodgers acknowledges he's not playing as well as he could or should be.

``I just have to do things I know I'm capable of doing on Sundays,'' he said.

It might have been too much to expect Rodgers to maintain that NFL-record 122.5 quarterback rating he had last year. But the reigning MVP isn't even in triple digits, ranking eighth in the NFL with a 97 rating. He's thrown four interceptions, two fewer than he threw all last season.

Rodgers does have the NFL's third-best completion rate at 68.8 percent, and is fifth with 10 touchdowns.

``It's on everybody, man. We've got to get better,'' receiver James Jones said. ``We're losing, so everything is zoomed in that much more. Everybody's under a microscope when you lose. If we was winning right now, 5-0, and we were still playing the way we're playing, it'd probably be a whole different story. But we've got to win.''

Injuries haven't helped matters. Receiver Greg Jennings has missed two games with a groin problem, and has said he won't play until he is 100 percent healthy so it doesn't slow him down the rest of the season. Running back Cedric Benson, who has had 71 of the team's 111 carries, is out at least eight weeks with a sprained left foot. Tight end Jermichael Finley is nursing a bum right shoulder, though he insists he'll play Sunday. D.J. Williams tweaked his hamstring in practice Wednesday.

Raji is a game-time decision after he hurt his ankle against the Colts, and cornerback Davon House has a nagging shoulder injury.

But all teams are dealing with injuries. The Texans lost linebacker Brian Cushing, their top tackler, to a torn left ACL in Monday night's game.

And, really, injuries aren't the main source of the Packers' problems. It's a bunch of little things here and there that, when taken together, add up to a rough start.

``It's just the little details, being brutally honest,'' coach Mike McCarthy said.

While the Packers aren't panicking - ``It's a punk mentality, frankly,'' McCarthy said. ``I think it's a loser mentality'' - there is a sense of urgency. Chicago, off this week, and Minnesota have a two-game lead on Green Bay, and the Packers can't afford to let that gap widen much more.

``I really don't want to just sit here and say it's a must win and all that stuff. We just need to go out there and play well,'' Jones said. ``Stack success and go onto the next game and play well. We've got too many ups and downs right now where, at times, we play well and then we're inconsistent.

``We just need to go out there and play a complete game and look up at the scoreboard when it's all said and done.''

Besides, the Packers better than anyone know it's not too late. After all, they started the 2010 season 3-3 and were 8-6, needing to win the last two games just to make the playoffs.

Look how that turned out.

Green Bay ripped off six straight wins, capping the run with a victory over Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.

``It's really how you finish a season that matters,'' Rodgers said. ``I think we all know that.''

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Catching up on the Orioles before they come to D.C.

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USA Today Sports Images

Catching up on the Orioles before they come to D.C.

It's not a rivalry, but it's not not a rivalry, either.

For the Nationals, playing the Orioles isn't the same thing as playing the Braves or the Phillies, but it's also not the same thing as playing the Tigers or the Rangers. That is to say, it means something.

For many Nats fans, however, the Capitals' glorious run to the Stanley Cup has drawn attention away from baseball, both in D.C. and around the league.

With the Orioles coming to town to finish off their season series (the Nats swept three games in Baltimore back in May when they had forgotten how to lose on the road), casual fans might be wondering how the DMV's other team is doing in 2018.

Well, if the road sweep didn't give it away, the Orioles have been really bad this season. Like, really, really bad. Like, might-be-picking-first-in-the-2019-draft bad.

So, how did the team that won the most games in the American League from 2012 to 2016 end up as the worst team in baseball in 2018?

There are a few factors we can point to, including some serious regression, bad injury luck, a lack of fundamentals, and a tough schedule. On a macro level, however, there's a clear reason for their struggles. The Orioles, who built their 2010s run behind power hitting and a great bullpen, haven't hit for power and haven't had a good bullpen.

The bullpen woes can partially be traced to injury, as Zach Britton has missed most of the year so far after undergoing surgery on his Achilles during the offseason. 

Britton was unbelievable in 2016, putting together one of the greatest relief seasons in recent memory, but he hasn't been quite right since. He struggled with minor injuries in 2017, which hurt his trade value during discussions at last year's trade deadline, and then he suffered his major injury over the winter.

When a team relies on its bullpen as heavily as the Orioles have in the last half-decade, missing any contributor hurts. Missing the best pitcher on the team hurts a lot, and missing one of the best relievers in the world hurts the most. Everyone else has had to move up a rung on the ladder, and it hasn't gone well.

Brad Brach made the All-Star Game in 2016, but since stepping into the closer's role this year he's struggled. A 3.58 ERA is unsightly for a reliever, and his 1.70 WHIP is among the worst of any closer. 16 walks in 27.2 innings have been a major culprit.

Mychal Givens, once considered an untouchable trade asset, is sporting a career-worst ERA of 4.04, and his and Brach's struggles, combined with Britton's absence, have given the O's a 4.17 ERA among all relievers, 22nd in baseball, and a .263 batting average against, which is next-to-last. They have no power pitchers to speak of, as they're striking out just 8.18 batter per 9 innings, 4th-worst in baseball.

The power has gone out at the plate as well. The Orioles have hit 77 home runs this season, which is good for 17th in baseball. That may not sound too bad, as it's right around the middle of the pack, but that total is buoyed by Manny Machado's MVP-level season. The rest of the team has hit a combined 59 home runs, an abysmal number. 

Until being benched recently, Chris Davis was on pace to record literally the worst single-season Wins Above Replacement total in Major League Baseball history. On his own, Davis is undoing any good done by Machado, and he's getting paid a boatload of money to do so. 

It's especially bad when considering how reliant the team is on long balls. Their team batting average is .228, which is barely better than Bryce Harper's .217 average everyone is freaking out about, and their team on-base percentage is a stunning .294, good for dead last in baseball.

Basically, this team never has baserunners, which means they need home runs to score (41.9% of their runs are scored via homers, which is top-10 in baseball). Considering how few home runs they've hit, it's no surprise they've scored the fewest runs in all of baseball.

So, when you see the Orioles' record is an astonishing 20-50 (for reference, that's seven games worse than the woeful Marlins) and they sit 27.5 games back of first place in the AL East, now you know why. The power is out in Baltimore, and it looks like it won't be coming back for quite some time.

Next time the Nats lose five of six games, fans won't have to look too far up I-95 to remember it could be a whol lot worse.
 

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Soto's 2-run HR lifts Nats past Yanks 5-3 in resumed Game 1

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USA Today Sports

Soto's 2-run HR lifts Nats past Yanks 5-3 in resumed Game 1

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Juan Soto's latest feat: homering in a game played before he made his major league debut.

Huh?

The 19-year-old Soto delivered a tiebreaking, pinch-hit, two-run shot in the sixth inning of a game that began and was suspended because of rain last month, five days before he was called up from the minors for the first time, to lift the Washington Nationals to a 5-3 victory over the New York Yankees in the opener of an unusual doubleheader Monday.

Game 1 resumed with the score 3-all and the Nationals about to bat in the bottom of the sixth. After Bryce Harper -- who had a full beard back on May 15, when the game began, but was clean-shaven this time -- struck out, and Anthony Rendon singled, Soto drove a 97 mph fastball from Chad Green (4-1) to the back of the second deck in right field.

"I thought he had a good chance to hit the ball hard," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "That was hard."

It was Soto's sixth homer since he was brought up from Double-A Harrisburg on May 20 -- and second against the Yankees. Soto stood and admired this one before beginning his trot around the bases.

"A pitch right in his hot zone. Soto got us again," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "Obviously a really good looking player. Two pretty big shots he's hit against us."

Soto also was involved in a double play while playing left in the seventh. Didi Gregorius lined to Soto, and he lobbed the ball to shortstop Trea Turner, who sprinted to second base to double off Gary Sanchez.

Soto's stats -- and all others from Game 1 -- will count as being part of the originally scheduled game on May 15, but Soto's official debut will still be considered on the actual date it happened, according to the Nationals, citing the Elias Sports Bureau.

"I wish he was climbing the ladder more routinely. He should be in about Double-A now," Boone said. "What can you say? Nineteen and obviously doing really well."

Wander Suero (1-0) got the win for 1 1-3 scoreless innings -- one inning on May 15, and one out on Monday.

Sean Doolittle struck out Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton and got Gary Sanchez to fly out to center in the ninth for his 18th save.

Game 2, which was completely rained out May 16, was to begin a half-hour after Game 1 finished, with Washington's Erick Fedde facing New York's Sonny Gray.

The Nationals had lost five of six games entering the day.

In the month-plus since the games were supposed to be played, both teams' rosters changed, of course. Aside from Soto's arrival, two position players who started the game for Washington, Howie Kendrick (out for the season with an injury) and Andrew Stevenson (demoted to the minors) are no longer around. For the Yankees, their original starter at first base, Tyler Austin, is in the minors.

Martinez said the closest thing he could compare this situation to was Game 5 of the 2008 World Series, when the Tampa Bay Rays -- he was Joe Maddon's bench coach then -- wound up losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in a contest that began on a Monday, was halted in the sixth inning because of rain, and concluded on a Wednesday.

"It's weird, man," Martinez said.

STREAK ENDS

Another oddity: The loss means the Yankees' streak of winning eight consecutive series now gets retroactively shortened to seven series, because it's as if Game 1 took place entirely on May 15.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Yankees: OF Brett Gardner was not listed in the lineup for Game 2 because an MRI exam showed swelling in his right knee, although Boone said he didn't expect Gardner to go on the DL. ... With Gardner's status uncertain, the Yankees recalled OF Clint Frazier from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre and optioned INF Ronald Torreyes to that minor league affiliate.

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson, on the DL for two weeks with a strained right hamstring, took fielding practice before the start of play Monday and said he "felt fine." Hellickson has taken two bullpen sessions and "felt 100 percent," so expects to be able to return soon. ... 1B Matt Adams was "still a little sore" after getting hit by a pitch on a finger Friday.

UP NEXT

The Nationals open a three-game series at home against the Baltimore Orioles on Tuesday, and Martinez has not yet announced who his starter will be. The Yankees return to New York for a three-game set against Seattle, with RHP Domingo German (1-4, 5.23 ERA) pitching on Tuesday against Mariners LHP Marco Gonzalez (7-3, 3.42).