Nationals

Smith gives positive report on injured players

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Smith gives positive report on injured players

FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. (AP) Cornerback Dunta Robinson is in the NFL's mandated concussion protocol, and defensive end John Abraham is nursing a sore left ankle.

Another concern for the Atlanta Falcons is that strong safety William Moore has been sidelined by a strained hamstring since late last month.

Even so, Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith expects his team to be nearly at full strength for the playoffs.

Smith says early reports on Abraham and Robinson, both injured in the season finale against Tampa Bay, are positive.

And Smith believes Moore could be ready to return and practice this week.

``I can tell you this,'' Smith said Monday, ``with both of the players that left the game yesterday, I fully anticipate they will be ready to go on Sunday, Jan. 13 at 1 p.m.''

Having two weeks to practice will allow the Falcons to spend Wednesday through Sunday working on fundamentals and timing. When they return to the field next week, the coaching staff will install a game plan for either No. 4 seed Washington, No. 5 seed Seattle or sixth-seeded Minnesota.

The staff will spend Wednesday and Thursday setting game-plan contingencies on Seattle and Minnesota. Because the coaches are already familiar Washington following Atlanta's Week 5 road win, they will wait until Friday to work on the Redskins.

Smith was disappointed with the team's sloppy performance Sunday. Losing 22-17 at home to Tampa Bay showed some of the weaknesses that have been problems this year even though the Falcons tied for the league's best record at 13-3 and earned the NFC's top playoff seed.

Inconsistencies running the ball, defending the run, rushing the passer, protecting quarterback Matt Ryan and creating turnovers have hurt Atlanta this year. Sunday's defeat looked similar to those home games that the Falcons narrowly won against struggling opponents Carolina, Oakland and Arizona.

Atlanta managed just 65 yards rushing while the Buccaneers gained 144. Ryan was sacked twice, hit six times and harassed into escaping the pocket several times.

The offense converted just 3 of 14 third downs. Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman was picked off once, by cornerback Asante Samuel, after throwing four interceptions in each of his last two games.

It's no wonder the Bucs snapped a five-game skid.

``You get what you earn in this league, and yesterday we didn't earn the win,'' Smith said. ``But you've got to consider it was the final week of the regular season. And I think we've got to be proud of what we've accomplished in the regular season. As I told the guys yesterday, the new season starts and everybody is 0-0.''

Injury-wise, if Smith's prediction comes true, the Falcons will have dodged a major problem by getting Abraham, Robinson and Moore back in time for the playoffs.

Since losing former Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes for the season in Week 1, Atlanta made it through the regular season without a long-term injury to a starter. Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon missed three games and Samuel played just one series in Weeks 14-15, but both returned without missing a proverbial beat.

``It's good to have a week off to get our guys back healthy,'' tight end Tony Gonzalez said. ``Believe it or not, it's an advantage. It's good for us to be at home. We are extremely tough to beat at home. I know the dome will be rocking in our first playoff game. We just have to make sure we match and exceed our opponent's intensity that we've had all season that has got us to this point to be a No. 1 seed.''

Whether the few thousand empty seats and resulting flat atmosphere affected the team is hard to say. But in having their 11-game home winning streak ended, the Falcons were playing essentially a meaningless game with no chance of improving their playoff seed and Tampa Bay already eliminated from the postseason.

``We have a lot of pride about ourselves, so we want to win,'' Samuel said. ``We lost, and it really hurt. We really thought we were going to pull it off, but we have bigger fish to fry.''

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Max Scherzer is having the best month of his career

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Max Scherzer is having the best month of his career

Max Scherzer’s black eye receded from the full-circle package to a dark half-moon before he took the mound in Miami. And his memory reminded him of the last time he was there. It was April 20 and produced his worst start of the season: 5 1/3 innings, 11 hits, six earned runs, a loss to drop his record to 1-3 and raise his ERA to 4.34. The latter number has declined in every start since.

Scherzer’s eight innings of one-run ball Tuesday night against the Marlins drove his ERA down to 2.52. His league-leading strikeout total again increased by 10 for the fourth consecutive game. He walked no one. It took just 94 pitches -- 71 strikes -- to reach that point Tuesday in the Nationals' 6-1 win.

Two questions emerged after the outing: Is Scherzer back in the National League Cy Young Award race? Is this the best month of his career?

The first is an easy yes. His 4.2 WAR (according to Fangraphs) coming into the night was by far the best of any pitcher in the major leagues. National League ERA leader Hyun-Jin Ryu is second in the NL at 3.3. Scherzer leads the National League in innings pitched, strikeouts, starts and strikeouts per nine. He is third in strikeout-to-walk ratio, fourth in WHIP, fourth in OPS against, seventh in batting average against. In a nutshell, Scherzer is again dominating while doing the heavy lifting. He makes every start. He gets into the seventh inning or later 58.9 percent time. He handles all comers.

His June blitz, in particular, has put him back in the Cy Young discussion. Following Tuesday night’s man-handling of Miami, Scherzer has a 0.97 ERA in the month. He’s struck out 54 and walked five. His WHIP is 0.70. Each start has lasted seven innings or more. He’s thrown 70 percent of his 536 pitches for strikes.

Why is he so diabolical? Look at the first three innings Tuesday against the Marlins. A 14-pitch first included some effort and 10 fastballs. Scherzer picked up no swinging strikes on those fastballs, which meant the eager Marlins were getting a good look at the pitch. So, he changed.

In the second inning, Scherzer threw five four-seam fastballs, four sliders/cutters, (Scherzer calls his 90-mph pitch often identified as a “cutter” his “power slider”), three changeups and three curveballs. That mix produced five swinging strikes.

In the third inning, six fastballs, five sliders, one changeup, three swinging strikes.

Which is the complication for the opposition. He will move off whatever is not working and immediately dispatch a fresh bouquet. He can command all of it, throw any of it when he wants, and he’s been obsessing over it for almost a week. Good luck.

An age-35 season is not supposed to be a time of ascension, but, as he is wont to do, Scherzer appears to be running against perceived norms. 

June of 2017 is the only month of his career to challenge June of 2019 for personal supremacy. The numbers that month: 0.99 ERA, 36 ⅓ innings pitched, 51 strikeouts, six walks, a 0.55 WHIP. He made five starts that month. He’s already made five this June, struck out more batters and walked fewer while carrying a lower ERA.

Scherzer has a start remaining this month. It comes against one of his former teams, the Detroit Tigers. No major-league club has scored fewer runs. That mix should further define this as the best month of Scherzer’s Hall-of-Fame bound career and help answer the Cy Young question, too.

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Orioles' past and future intersect during jam-packed day at Camden Yards

Orioles' past and future intersect during jam-packed day at Camden Yards

If you were looking for a moment in Tuesday’s game that exemplified the proverbial passing of the torch in Baltimore, it came early.

In the top of the third inning, past Oriole superstar Manny Machado crushed his 100th career Camden Yards home run. It was especially fitting that the ball traveled far enough (455 feet, to be exact) to land in the *visitor* bullpen.

In the middle of the fourth inning, future Oriole superstar (fingers crossed) Adley Rutschman was introduced to a sea of adoring fans wearing orange and black, a sight the former Oregon State Beaver is all too familiar with.

It was hard to tell which player received the louder ovation. The fact that both players, neither of whom was playing for the Orioles Tuesday night, elicited such receptions highlights the crossroads this franchise finds itself at.

Manager Brandon Hyde spoke to this effect pregame.

“Obviously when the game starts I’m going to try to win the game and go with the guys we have,” Hyde told reporters. “I’m also looking at the big picture. I think everybody is really aware of where we are organizationally. It’s the start of the process we laid out months ago. Anytime we get extremely talented guys in our organization, it’s bright, and it feels good, and there’s excitement. And I totally understand it and I feel that too.”

Fans could be forgiven for forgetting there was even a game to be played Tuesday evening, with the excitement surrounding Rutschman’s introduction and the long-building buzz for Machado’s return coinciding on the same day. That can be true of the state of the franchise overall right now.

It’s easy to talk about top draft picks and high-level prospects in the minors, but there are games going on every night for the big league club as well. But with another historic season taking place on the field, it’s much more appealing to look elsewhere.

Adley Rutschman provides a level of hope fans can’t get from the Major League roster, and Hyde recognizes that.

“We’re just looking to get talent, guys that can be impact players,” Hyde explained. “You don’t want to label a guy or put too much pressure on someone, but obviously he’s done a lot of really good things at the amateur level and we’re really excited to have him in our organization. So there’s a lot of excitement.”

The Orioles manager came to Baltimore from a Chicago Cubs franchise known for developing high-end talent.

“I was the farm director when we drafted Bryant, obviously saw Almora and Baez and all those guys,” Hyde answered when asked how Rutschman compares. “He’s along those lines of being a real mature kid, looking forward to go play, you can tell he’s really excited and we’re obviously looking forward to getting him going and watching him play.”

Of course, it’s not just former Cubs prospects who have provided a template for success Rutschman can follow. Somebody a little closer to home just so happened to be sitting in the third base dugout Tuesday night.

“Just soak it all in, enjoy it all," Manny Machado told the media to laughter when asked what advice he would give Rutschman. "You know I wasn’t a number one overall pick, so it’s different. I mean just enjoy yourself. It’s an opportunity that he worked for his entire life to get to that situation, he finally got drafted by a ballclub...the only advice I can give is to continue to have fun, just enjoy yourself every moment of the way and just keep working as hard as you possibly can to reach your goals. Just because you got picked, one of those goals is scratched off, but there’s so many more to be accomplished. Just keep working as hard as you can to be the best person you can be, the best ballplayer you can be, and everything else will just take care of itself.”

It’s a mature response from a matured player, one who not too long ago found himself in the same position as Rutschman: top prospect for a franchise desperate to field a winner.

Trying to build that winner is GM Mike Elias, who emphasized just how critical bringing in a player like Rutschman is.

“This was the biggest decision this organization is going to make this year, and we couldn’t be more thrilled with the outcome,” Elias said Tuesday. “We’re looking for building blocks and found a big piece of that with Adley.”

It’s going to be a few years until Rutschman is able to truly take over the mantle of face of the Orioles. As Hyde reminded the media, “it’s still so far away.”

For now, Rutschman will have to settle for face of the rebuild, a position Machado was all-too-familiar with. 

But even an elongated timeline couldn’t keep Tuesday from feeling like a milestone in the history of the franchise, at the intersection of it’s past, present and future. It was a figurative passing of the torch, if not a literal one.

It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all. Fans at the park felt that as they welcomed back Manny Machado with open arms.

And if their warm reception for Adley Rutschman is any indication, they are more than ready to love again.

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