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Kristi Toliver is easing back from her injury, but she provided the spark in Game 1 for the Mystics

Kristi Toliver is easing back from her injury, but she provided the spark in Game 1 for the Mystics

Kristi Toliver had not seen in-game action in over a month heading into the WNBA Playoffs. Her extended time off did not stop her from hitting arguably one of the biggest shots for the Washington Mystics in Game 1 of the WNBA Semifinals. 

It was a classic Toliver step-back 3-pointer. The clock was winding down in a huge third quarter for the Mystics, the shot closely contested and the ballgame was tied.

Nothing but net.  

“Kristi had some Kristi moments,” Elena Delle Donne said postgame. “Thank God, where she just kind of carries us on her back and just plays so fearless.”

That bucket gave a struggling Mystics offense the final bolt of energy in a 97-95 victory over the Las Vegas Aces Tuesday night. Massive knee brace and all, Toliver's 3-pointer started a 19-6 run stretching deep into the fourth quarter. It jumpstarted the Mystics to the explosive firepower that had become the norm for the team throughout 2019. 

The Aces mounted a comeback, even had a chance at the game-tying basket. But Toliver’s three flipped the script on Washington’s slow start. 

The 11-year veteran checked in for the first time since Aug. 8 just over five minutes into the game. She had missed the final 11 regular-season games for Washington with a right knee injury. During that span, the team dominated the opposition going 10-1 without her. She missed essentially the last half of a record-breaking Mystics season. Most notably for her, she was out when the team set the all-time WNBA mark for made 3-pointers in a game against the Indiana Fever. 

With less than a week of practice, she had to prepare for biggest game of the season as her first one back. Five-on-five drills weren't even a thought until five days before the series was set to start.  Only Monday was when Mystics coach Mike Thibault made the decision that she would play.

Jumping right back in wasn’t the easiest transition for the seasoned Toliver. For the first time since 2014 Toliver was coming off of the bench and had to work herself back into a team playing in a rhythm never seen before in the WNBA. 

She missed her first four shots of Game 1. Part of the second unit, she had the tough defensive assignment against sharpshooter Kelsey Plum. Playing against the aggressive young star definitely forced Toliver to be engaged early. Plum had gone off for 10 points and helped the Aces jump up by seven at the break.

At halftime, Toliver was a minus-13 in the box score.

“I knew that there’ll be a little bit of rust and she struggled in the first half,” Thibault said. “I told her this morning, ‘you’re going to miss some shots. That’s going to happen. Even if you were at your top, you’re going to miss some.’ And so I thought her energy and her aggressiveness was better in the second half.”

In fact, her first made basket was the step-back three to end the third quarter.

Toliver finished the contest with eight points on a 3-for-8 shooting night with four assists. Off the bench, she played nearly 23 minutes, the most of any reserve. 

A good way for head coach Thibault to ease her back into the rotation.

“Coach did a good job as far as limiting my minutes so I would be able to be [at the end of quarters],” Toliver said postgame. “And we talked about it before that, we want me to be in at the end of games and quarters. Those are important times finishing halves and finishing quarters.”

Bringing Toliver back at the right pace is vitally important to this Mystics team. As the runner-up in the WNBA Finals last season, they had to go through the difficulty of playing without a 100% Delle Donne.

This year the pieces are still all in place, and more with Emma Meesseman. The team admirably has dealt with their starting point guard's absence. She's back now and her injury management is the biggest obstacle. 

Eventually, Toliver will likely be worked back into the starting lineup as the team’s primary ball-handler. Right now it’s just getting through recovery from Game 1 and making it to Thursday and Game 2. 

“[I feel] okay. I’m happy to have played in one. We’ll see how we feel tomorrow, with recovering and getting a lot of ice and treatment and all that. But this is the most I’ve played in five weeks so we’ll see tomorrow,” Toliver said. 

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Patrick Corbin helps the Nationals, so does Sonny Gray

Patrick Corbin helps the Nationals, so does Sonny Gray

The night set up well.

Patrick Corbin was on the mound for the Nationals. Chris Paddack was throwing for San Diego against Milwaukee. Sonny Gray opposed the Chicago Cubs. Good teams deploy a decent starter almost every night. Bad teams have a good starter ready once or twice a week. So, while the Nationals again wrestled with St. Louis, they received some help from the rotations employed elsewhere by poor teams playing the main wild-card competition.

Corbin made sure Washington handled what it could control in St. Louis. He hung in for six innings on 110 pitches, allowing just an earned run and striking out 11. He also walked four -- two of which were ex-teammate Paul Goldschmidt, the lone St. Louis hitter appearing capable of identifying Corbin’s slider. Fernando Rodney pitched a 1-2-3 seventh inning. Well-rested Daniel Hudson finished the game along. Chip Hale again managed in place of the recuperating Davey Martinez.

Corbin’s ERA is 3.10. His WHIP is 1.16. He’s made 31 starts. Why did the Nationals give him an extra contract year? Why did they offer more money? This is precisely why. Stabilization exists in the middle of their rotation because of the $140 million allotted to Corbin. And, he may even have a case to start the Wild-Card Game, depending on the opponent and whether the Nationals get there. Corbin’s argument to take the mound would be solid. Washington reaching the game remains an embattled proposition.

Paddack pitched well against Milwaukee, where he was restricted to just 84 pitches to close his rookie year. However, the San Diego bullpen blew the game in the eighth inning. So, Milwaukee keeps rolling, winning a bullpen game which featured a mid-section with three scoreless innings from old friend Gio Gonzalez. The Brewers have won nine of 10, 11 of 12, 14 of 17. They are two games behind St. Louis for the National League Central Division lead.

Which makes Wednesday’s day game between two grizzled right-handers not just about the Nationals pushing back current wild-card opponents, but also a possible future one. Max Scherzer will pitch for Washington against Adam Wainwright. They have combined for 734 regular-season starts. Wednesday will rank among their important ones.

San Diego’s bullpen did not hold up Tuesday. Cincinnati’s did. Gray went 6 ⅔ innings, struck out nine and positioned the Reds for a win. They haven’t put together a winning month since May. September is steeped in the same mediocrity: Cincinnati was 7-9 in the month entering Tuesday. But, it held on to beat the Cubs. Which meant Milwaukee jumped into a dead heat with Chicago. Each has 11 games to play.

Interesting about the Nationals' schedule is they have a game-in-hand on both Chicago and Milwaukee thanks to the packed final-week schedule. The June 17 postponement between Washington and Philadelphia could have an enormous impact on which teams make the postseason.

Tuesday, Corbin delivered the most impact. Howie Kendrick backed him with more 35-year-old offense. Paddack tried to slow the Brewers. Gray did handle the Cubs. All of which kept the Nationals atop the wild-card standings with a 1 ½-game lead -- for now.

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