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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Max Scherzer's return from hamstring injury was a battle, but one he won against the Mets

Max Scherzer's return from hamstring injury was a battle, but one he won against the Mets

Better. Though the bar was low.

Max Scherzer worked for six innings Tuesday night in New York. He made it through one roughshod inning during his last outing against the Mets because his hamstring “tweak” was enough of an alarm that he decided to stop pitching.

That was seven days prior to his start against the Mets, which the Nationals won, 2-1. Ostensibly, Scherzer had not pitched for 13 days. He lasted the one inning, needed to work his hamstring problem out, then find a way back to the mound.

Davey Martinez wanted him to stop sprinting -- the initial cause of the hamstring problem -- in between starts. Scherzer did not want to stop sprinting, so he continued to do so once he felt better. He also pitched twice from a mound in the days before the bottom of the first on Tuesday. Both times, he felt 100 percent when pushing and landing. The hamstring was fine. So much so, that he expected to throw the 105 pitches he did to hold off the Mets across the grinding innings they imposed on him.

“Took some shots there early, but didn’t break and found a way to execute pitches there later in the game,” Scherzer said.

RELATED: TREA TURNER'S SWING HAS TAKEN TIME TO ADJUST WITHOUT REPLAY ACCESS

He finished with seven strikeouts across the six innings. Just a run scored. But, there were eight baserunners and Scherzer was in severe trouble in both the first and second innings. Those were the issues as he hunted a path to better out-pitches and location.

“It honestly kind of reminded me of Game 7 of the World Series when he went out there and he couldn’t zone in on the strike zone,” Martinez said. “His stuff was good. His pitch count got high. Once he settled in, we started noticing he started getting through the ball a little better. Balls started coming down. Started throwing a lot more strikes.”

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“Even though my pitch count got out of control, I was just able to just stay with [Kurt Suzuki] and continue to pound the zone and find a way to get through six [Tuesday],” Scherzer said.

The good is clear: He is back on the mound, healthy, throwing 98 mph and 100-plus pitches. Stephen Strasburg returned two days prior, though he is not 100 percent. Scherzer is physically right, if slightly rusty. That combination was sufficient in his first start after the hamstring problem.

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With no access to in-game video, Trea Turner’s swing has taken time to adjust

With no access to in-game video, Trea Turner’s swing has taken time to adjust

Heading into the Nationals’ four-game series with the New York Mets this week, Trea Turner was hitting just .196 on the young season with one home run. The vaunted base stealer had been thrown out on the basepaths three times while having yet to swipe a bag successfully. In the field, he’d racked up three errors.

It was a frustrating start for the 27-year-old shortstop, who’s coming off a season in which he played with only nine fingers and still found a way to serve as a catalyst atop the Nationals’ lineup. Now fully healthy, Turner was expected to play a role in helping Washington absorb the loss of Anthony Rendon in the middle of its lineup.

Normally, poor at-bats would prompt Turner to head down to the replay room for a quick look at his mechanics. He goes into the clubhouse in between innings and examines his previous swings to see if he needs to make any adjustments. It’s a practice Turner has grown to rely on over the course of his major-league career.

But this season, Turner hasn’t had access to the replay room after MLB banned in-game video as part of its health protocols for playing in the middle of a pandemic. Instead, he’s had to wait until after each game before being able to break down his swing. It’s made for slower progress, but after going 5-for-9 with two home runs and four RBIs over the first two games of the series in New York, he feels that his adjustments have started to pay off.

“I felt good in the box and I feel like my approach was good but not having video is a little different and I feel like in years past I was pretty good at going back and just checking out the swing real quick and making the little adjustment I need to make in game,” Turner said in a Zoom press conference after Tuesday’s 2-1 win.

“Finally made the right adjustment a few games ago and started putting the barrel on the ball and feeling a little better. The last four or five games or so my contact has been a little bit stronger and it was just a matter of time for the hits to start to fall.”

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Turner hasn’t been the only member of the baseball community to express how the lack of video access has changed their approach. On Saturday, Tampa Bay Rays manager Kevin Cash told MLB Network Radio that he wasn’t pleased with MLB’s decision to ban something that had become an integral tool for coaches and players during games.

“Without being too controversial, I think it's absolutely ridiculous,” Cash said. “It's probably one of the worst things that I've seen Major League Baseball do in take video away from players. Video is what makes us good. It helps us learn, it helps us coach, it helps us attack. And it's been taken away from us because of one team, or a couple teams' stupid choices.”

“We can't even watch a game; we cannot watch our own game. Our players cannot come in and watch a game in the clubhouse. It is asinine. The entire protocol system, how they came up with that, it is wrong. They're doing an injustice to players.”

While it’s unknown whether the real reasoning behind MLB’s decision is related to health protocols or the sign-stealing scandals that surrounded the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox over the offseason, Turner isn’t making any excuses. In fact, the results are beginning to turn his way.

Entering play Tuesday, Turner had a hard-hit percentage of 40.9 percent, well above his career rate of 32.5. His batting average on balls in play was just .238 (league average is .300), indicating he had been getting unlucky on some well struck balls. In fact, his groundball rate is down five percentage points from his career average while his flyball rate is up 10 percent.

Then came his home run off Mets starter Rick Porcello in the first inning. Turner took a breaking ball high and away and hit it off his back foot on a line straight into the seats in right field.

It was only Turner’s second opposite-field homer of his career after he hit none all of last season. Yet even with the adjustments he’d been making to his swing, he said that he didn’t go into the at-bat looking to hit anything to right field against Porcello.

“I think it’s just swing path and pitch,” Turner said. “I’ve hit a few balls to right-center out in certain stadiums, mostly probably at home, and I don’t know if those are opposite field per se. They might be more center field but I just think when you’re facing righties, to hit an opposite-field home run is fairly tough. He tried going toward that backdoor sinker and I just felt like it was the right swing on the right pitch and just keeping it fair and not slicing the ball.”

Turner will continue tweaking away at his swing, hoping to produce results like he has so far in the New York. But with or without the video replay room, he doesn’t expect the opposite-field homer to be the start of a new trend.

“I don’t have necessarily that oppo power some of these big guys get,” Turner said. “I usually have to pull them but every once in a while, if you get the right pitch on the right swing, it sneaks out. So I’ll take it.”

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