Nationals

Rubio knows big expectations await his return

Rubio knows big expectations await his return

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Wait `till Ricky comes back.

It seems like that's been the hopeful mantra for the Minnesota Timberwolves all season long.

Guards getting torched by opposing backcourts? Wait `till Ricky comes back.

Nikola Pekovic not getting the same clean looks in the paint he did last year? Wait `till Ricky comes back.

Attendance a little on the sluggish side early on? Wait `till Ricky comes back.

Ricky Rubio knows that there are a lot of expectations being put on his return to the Timberwolves. He knows he is being cast as the magic sand that will fill in every crack and mask any blemish in the team's promising, if flawed, foundation as soon as he hits the court. It's nothing new for basketball prodigy who has been carrying the weight of expectations since he was a teenager in Spain.

``I don't know why, but the pressure has been following me since I turned pro,'' Rubio told The Associated Press on Friday. ``I was 14 and I was they said I was unimpressive. `He's too young to play. He's not going to do well.' And I did well back in Spain.

``The pressure followed me when I came here and they said, `Oh Ricky's coming after two years, he's going to bring everything to this team.' It's just hard, but it's something that I'm used to. I like the pressure, I like the challenge. The more difficult the challenge, the better it is for me.''

What makes this hurdle different than any other he's had to leap before it is that Rubio is recovering from his first significant injury. It's been almost nine months since he tore the ACL and LCL in his left knee late in a game against the Lakers, ending a terrific rookie season and sucking the life right out of a young Timberwolves team that he helped return to relevance in the Western Conference.

Rubio was scratched from the Wolves' game against Cleveland on Friday night, but his season debut appears to be imminent. Minnesota has four days off after the game against the Cavs before a home game against Denver on Wednesday. Neither the team, nor Rubio has set a date for his return, but it's clear he's starting to get a little antsy.

``I want to play like a month ago, but they don't let me,'' Rubio said with a smile, probably only half-joking. ``Now it's kind of a thing when my knee feels ready, it's going to be the time. But I don't know. I need a couple more practices to see how I am. Actually, I don't know if I'm going to be ready next week or three weeks. It depends how I feel and how my knee responds.''

To put it simply, Rubio is too important to the franchise's future for the Wolves coaches and medical staff to go out on too shaky a limb by bringing him back a game or two early. Along with All-Star Kevin Love, he is the glue that holds everything together, the headliner on the marquee, the apple of a swooning fan base's eye.

``I don't think I'm the key or I'm going to change the team,'' he said. ``But I'm going to help it.''

Still, Rubio and the team are trying to temper the out-sized eagerness surrounding his return. He hasn't played in a game in nine months. It's going to take time for him to get his timing and conditioning back up to speed. So that beautiful game that he plays might not be so pretty at first.

``I've been out like eight, nine months,'' he said. ``I'm not giving excuses. It's how it is. If you're out for eight months or nine, the first game you're not going to play like you used to. It's going to take time, one, two, three months, who knows? I have to get used to the rhythm again and get used to playing again.''

After all, not everyone is Adrian Peterson. Just across town, the Minnesota Vikings running back has defied all the odds in his own comeback from a torn ACL. He leads the NFL in rushing and appears to be playing better than he ever has, less than a year removed from his injury.

``That's crazy. Nobody can do that,'' Rubio said. ``He did it and he came back even better than he was. I'm watching some games and I'm not a big fan of football but because he had the same injury and he's playing for the Vikings, I follow him. It's real impressive performance, what he's doing. I wish I could be as good as he does after that injury.''

Love knows how his friend is feeling. The power forward missed most of the first month of the season with a broken right hand, and he heard everyone saying how things would be so much better as soon as he was in the lineup. But the Wolves lost four of Love's first five games and clearly struggled initially to incorporate him back into the mix.

``For me, obviously I want to be cautiously optimistic from that standpoint because I know a lot of pressure was put on me, not knowing how my hand was going to respond,'' Love said. ``I know I haven't been the 25 (points) and 10 (rebounds) guy that I usually am. ... I haven't been quite putting up the numbers and helping the team as much as I can, but we do have an 8-9 record.

``For Ricky, I've said all along that I know he's going to return probably sometime in December. But as far as putting that type of pressure on him, I think our organization and our coaching staff and the guys, the players, have done a good job of doing that.''

Rubio knows one of his trademark no-look bounce passes may miss the target in the early going. The alley oops may be a little harder to come by, and his timing on the pick-and-roll may not be as sharp. But as long as he's healthy, he's OK with that. And that's why even with his first game apparently so close, he has to be sure he's completely ready.

``If I come back earlier than I'm supposed to, it's bad for my knee and bad for the team too because I'm not going to give my 100 percent,'' he said. ``And if I get hurt again, it's not going to help the team. And if I play and I'm not playing good, it's not going to help the team. I want to play so bad, but I want to be focused and I want to be ready to play when I'm ready.''

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Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter:http://twitter.com/APkrawczynski

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Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

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USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

ST. LOUIS -- Koda Glover rewarded his manager's faith.

Bryce Harper had three hits and drove in three runs, Glover earned the save in the first opportunity since Ryan Madson was placed on the disabled list, and the Washington Nationals snapped a four-game losing streak with a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night.

The Nationals won for just the third time in their last 10 games and snapped the Cardinals' season-high, eight-game winning streak.

"We needed a win today," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "Get on that plane, have a nice happy flight and come back tomorrow and be at home and be ready."

Tanner Roark (8-12) gave up four runs, three earned, in six innings.

A beleaguered bullpen that had blown two leads to start the losing streak took care of the rest. Justin Miller pitched two scoreless innings before Glover closed it out.

"There's been a lot of changes (in the bullpen)," Miller said. "It's unfortunate, a couple of injuries and stuff like that, but I don't really look at it as I've got the seventh or eighth or anything like that. I'm just going out there just trying to do my job."

Glover took the loss in the series opener on Monday, giving up a game-ending homer to Paul DeJong.

"The first game of the series didn't go as I would have liked for it to have went," Glover said. "So to get put back in that situation or even a better situation to get a save, I'm happy with that outcome."

Harper drove in the game's first run with a double in the first and knocked in two more with a bases-loaded single in the fourth to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead.

A pair of errors helped the Nationals extend their lead to 5-1 in the fifth. St. Louis committed three errors in the game after committing just four total errors during the winning streak.

"A couple plays clearly we expect to make and will make and just didn't go our way for a little bit there," Cardinals interim manager Mike Shildt said. "To the guys' credit they regrouped, settled down, and started playing back to the baseball they know they can play."

The Nationals had opportunities to pad the lead, leaving the bases loaded in the third and fifth while stranding nine runners in the first five innings.

"When you have an opportunity to put teams away you've got to do that," Martinez said. "Especially with how hot the Cardinals are playing right now. They're going to come back."

The Cardinals got within one in the sixth. After DeJong and Kolten Wong came up with back-to-back, two-out RBI hits, Harrison Bader hit a slow grounder to third. Anthony Rendon's throw to first got away from Ryan Zimmerman for an error, allowing Wong to score from second to cut the Nationals' lead to 5-4.

Just two of the four runs Luke Weaver (6-11) allowed in his 3 2/3 innings were earned. He gave up seven hits, including two to Roark, who scored both times.

Tyson Ross allowed one unearned run in 3 1/3 innings of relief.

Bader homered in the third and Matt Carpenter walked twice to extend his on-base streak to a career-high 34 games.

TRAINING ROOM

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson will have an MRI on his sore right wrist on Friday. RHP Joe Ross (right elbow surgery) threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings at Class A Potomac on Thursday and is hoping for a September return.

Cardinals: RHP Carlos Martinez (right shoulder strain) will begin a rehab Friday at Double-A Springfield. RHP Adam Wainwright (right elbow inflammation) threw two scoreless innings Thursday night at High-A Palm Beach.

UP NEXT

Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (15-5, 2.19 ERA) will take the mound as the Nationals return home for a three-game series Friday night against the Miami Marlins and RHP Dan Straily (4-5, 4.42 ERA). Scherzer is 3-0 with a 3.43 ERA in three starts this season against the Marlins.

Cardinals: RHP Jack Flaherty (6-6, 3.22 ERA) kicks off a three-game series Friday night as the Cardinals host the Milwaukee Brewers and RHP Freddy Peralta (5-3, 4.47 ERA). Flaherty struck out a career-high 13 batters in his last start against the Brewers on June 22.

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

In April, it would have been unfathomable. In May, it would have been laughable. In June, it would have been improbable. In July, it started to look possible. In August, it might even have been likely. Now, it’s a complete toss-up.

Juan Soto is the worthiest National League Rookie of the Year. So is Ronald Acuna.

It’s one of the most exciting rookie races in recent memory, not simply for the otherworldly numbers each freshman sensation is putting up, but for just how good they are at such young ages. Juan Soto is a jaw-dropping 19. Acuna, by comparison, is the wizened veteran at the old age of.. 20. 

The two are preternaturally talented, and their mature-beyond-their-years games have translated perfectly well to the big leagues. The question now is: which one will actually take home the hardware?

(Before we continue, I’ll note that Jack Flaherty, Brian Anderson, and Walker Buehler are all very talented young players who would at least be in the conversation in normal years).

The first step is to look at the numbers.

On the season Acuna is slashing .287/.347/.571, and his wRC+ is 144. He’s got 19 home runs and 8 stolen bases in just 68 games and his fWAR is 2.3. bWAR has him at 2.8

Soto’s slash line is currently .293/.420/.534, to go along with 15 home runs. His wRC+ is 153, and his fWAR is 2.7. His bWAR sits at 2.2.

Obviously, the numbers are terrific for both. Acuna has been up longer, but thanks to injury Soto has actually played 8 more games. Acuna has the edge in power, both in home runs and slugging percentage, plus he’s clearly the speedier player and better defender. If you’re looking for all-around game, he’s probably your man. Plus, for those who care about such things when voting on awards, the Braves are several games ahead of the Nats in the standings.

However, Soto’s performance has a couple things going for it. First of all, as impressive as it is that Acuna is taking the league by storm as a 20-year old, Soto is nearly a full year younger. It cannot be overemphasized how wild it is what Soto is doing as a teenager. He may very well be the greatest teenage batter in baseball history.

Secondly, Soto has been incredibly consistent. He’s basically been an All-Star level hitter since the day he was called up in May, whereas Acuna’s numbers, while very legitimate, are buoyed by his recent hot streak. He’s hit 8 home runs in 8 games, and of every hitter with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star Game, he has the highest wRC+ in that span. He’s had plenty of valleys to his peaks, though, and Soto has been a model of consistency. Of all hitters with at 200 at-bats this entire season, Soto ranks 7th over the entire season, That’s astounding.

Another point in Soto’s favor is just how historic his numbers are. Voters love a narrative, and as mentioned above, Soto is having literally the best offensive season a teenager has ever had. The highest wRC+ by a 19-year old in baseball history in Mel Ott with a 140 exactly 90 seasons ago. Soto is beating that by 13 so far.

The true separator, though, is Soto’s on-base percentage. His .420 mark is a comfortable 4th of all players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind elite batting eyes Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Joey Votto. And, once again, we’re talking about something historic.

Soto’s .420 on-base percentage, if it holds, will be the only OBP over .400 for a teenager with 200 plate appearances in Major League history. In fact, outside of Ott’s .397 in 1928, no other teenager has ever reached base at a .360 clip, let alone Soto’s astronomical .420.

Ultimately, I believe more in Acuna’s future, but I think Soto’s been the better player this season. Acuna is more well-rounded, but Soto’s elite batting eye has made him a top 10 hitter in baseball already. If Soto had been up on Opening Day and played at this level, he’d be on pace for a 5.5 WAR, which would top even Bryce Harper’s 2012 season.

As mentioned, voters love a narrative though, and if Acuna comes back from his injury and stays as hot as he’s been all August, it’ll be tough to ignore his performance during the Braves’ stretch run. This award is not over, but for now, Soto should be considered the favorite.

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