Nationals

Smith says Bears still control playoff hopes

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Smith says Bears still control playoff hopes

LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) Coach Lovie Smith realizes the Chicago Bears no longer control their fate in the NFC North. Their playoff hopes still are in their hands, though.

That's something Smith emphasized Monday on the heels of an ugly loss at Minnesota that knocked the Bears (8-5) out of first place in the division. They've dropped four of five and are free falling for the second straight year with Green Bay coming to Soldier Field this weekend.

If the Packers (9-4) win, they clinch the division and a wild card is no sure thing for Chicago. The Bears were sixth in the NFC after Sunday's loss, with Washington, Dallas and Minnesota a game behind them.

``We need a little bit of help as far as the division is concerned,'' Smith said. ``But we do control our playoff hopes. That's what we have to lay everything we do right now on, to just play better football.''

That's something the Bears haven't done since they racked up 51 points in a win at Tennessee on Nov. 4. They were 7-1 after that game, but the schedule took a tougher turn with back-to-back losses against Houston and San Francisco that started this slide.

It lightens up after this week with games against Arizona and Detroit to close the season, although both are on the road. The Bears could get into the playoffs with fewer than 11 wins, but it might come down to tiebreakers.

``The pressure we're feeling right now is on our performances,'' Smith said. ``Improving, it's on us. We talked about someone else controlling the division, but what happens to us, it doesn't' really matter about the teams ahead of us or the teams behind us right now. It's just what we do. We're not looking at that at all. ... We have the Packers coming in and that's enough right there for all of our thoughts to just go on them.''

The recent skid has only fueled the notion that the early run had as much to do with who the Bears were playing as it did with how good they are.

It's also sparked memories of last year's collapse and renewed speculation about Smith's future. He was spared at the end of last season while then-general manager Jerry Angelo got the ax, after the Bears went from 7-3 to finishing at 8-8.

New GM Phil Emery had a mandate to keep the coach for this season, but beyond that?

``I think every day I've been here, each day I think all of us come to work we're going to do the best job we possibly can,'' said Smith, who's signed through 2013. ``All of our futures are tied. It's all based on wins and losses, really, and I'm OK with that.''

The Bears have lost all the momentum they had in the early going, just as they did after Cutler broke his right thumb last season.

He was unable to finish the game against Houston because of a concussion and missed the next game at San Francisco. Against Minnesota, Cutler had to leave in the fourth quarter because of a sore neck.

Cutler took a hit to the head by Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen that drew a penalty, but he said afterward his neck was bothering him all afternoon and worsened as the game went on. Cutler finished that drive before Jason Campbell took over, but he doesn't expect to miss any more time.

He said Monday during his weekly appearance on the ``Waddle & Silvy Show'' on Chicago's WMVP-AM 1000 that ``unless something drastic happens, absolutely'' he will be ready to play against the Packers.

Kicker Robbie Gould also strained his left calf during warmups. He did handle extra points and an onside kick but ceded kickoff duties to punter Adam Podlesh. The Bears did not attempt any field goals, so it's not clear if Gould or Podlesh would have handled them. Smith did not rule out bringing in kickers for tryouts this week in case Gould isn't ready.

The Bears could point to a long list of injuries in recent weeks, with Brian Urlacher (hamstring) possibly out for the remainder of the season and cornerback Tim Jennings (shoulder) sidelined against Minnesota. But that only partially explains the poor execution on both sides of the ball, the lack of big plays on defense.

They were supposed to be built to weather them, anyway. And at the moment, the Packers are rolling despite a run of injuries that would have derailed most teams.

``Right now we just have to win out,'' receiver Brandon Marshall said after the loss at Minnesota. ``It doesn't matter. Forget the Xs and Os, forget the first 11, 12 games of the season. All of that doesn't matter at this point. We have the guys in this locker room that can get it done and we have to get it done.''

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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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