Nationals

Stephens tops Robson in matchup of rising teens

201301190312115374195-p2.jpeg

Stephens tops Robson in matchup of rising teens

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Tennis rivals don't normally get messages from their opponent's mother wishing them well in the next round. Particularly after a defeat.

Moments after American Sloane Stephens beat fellow teenager Laura Robson of Britain 7-5, 6-3 in a third-round match at the Australian Open on Saturday, she received a text.

``She was like, `Great job, good fight.' And she said, `Cathy says great job and good luck in the next round,'' Stephens said of the message her mother relayed from Robson's mother, Cathy.

Stephens, 19, and Robson, 18, are two of the most promising young talents on the women's tour, and the match between them felt like a glimpse of future Grand Slam encounters - perhaps a bit later than the third round.

They also just happen to be friends - and their mothers are friends, too.

``We're turning into the Fed-Nadal rivalry,'' Stephens said, jokingly.

She did think they'll get a larger venue than Court 2 next time. ``I don't think we'll play that court ever again.''

There are certainly enough similarities between the players to suggest a rivalry could be in the making.

Both are close in age - Stephens is nine months older than Robson, whose 19th birthday is on Monday.

Both are coming off breakthrough years. Stephens reached the fourth round at the French Open and rose to No. 38 in the rankings by the end of 2012, becoming the only teenager in the top 50. And Robson defeated two former Grand Slam champions - Kim Clijsters and Li Na - to reach the fourth round at the U.S. Open and rise to 53rd in the rankings by the end of the year.

And both are being touted as future stars in their respective countries - Stephens as a future replacement for the Williams sisters at the top of the game and Robson as the next hope for British tennis on the women's side, which hasn't seen a Grand Slam champion since Virginia Wade won Wimbledon in 1977.

Such was the interest in their match that Stephens bumped former No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, who won her third-round match around the same time Saturday, out of the schedule for the main interview room at Melbourne Park after both of them came off the court. Two long-established British news organizations also live-blogged the match on their websites for all the Robson fans back in Britain.

The match itself, however, nearly didn't live up the billing. Stephens broke Robson twice to race out to a 4-0 lead in the first set before Robson, troubled by a sore shoulder, called for a medical timeout to have treatment.

Robson picked up her game after the break. Cheered on by the highly partisan crowd - Robson was born in Melbourne before moving to Britain - she began hitting shots deep into the corners and forcing errors from Stephens, leveling the score at 4-4.

Robson would be undone by her own errors, though. Stephens broke her at 6-5 to capture the first set and then again in the fourth game of the second set to close out the match.

Robson had 47 unforced errors overall, along with just 11 winners.

``I felt something in my shoulder yesterday, but we still don't know what it is because I haven't had time to see the doctor or anything yet,'' said a subdued Robson, who had upset 2011 Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in a three-hour match on Thursday.

``But these things happen, and you just have to play through the pain sometimes. I thought Sloane played really well today.''

Stephens, who next plays Serbia's Bojana Jovanovski for a spot in the quarterfinals, was equally complimentary of Robson afterward - and not just about her tennis.

``She's an awesome girl. She's pretty. I mean, what more do you want?'' she said. ``She's obviously a good player. We're going to have a rivalry, all that good stuff.''

So far, Stephens has the upper hand. She's now 2-0 against Robson after beating her last week in a tournament in Hobart, too.

But Robson believes there will be plenty of chances for revenge.

``We've played each other twice in two weeks, so I can see it happening again at some point,'' she said. ``I'm sure I'll play Sloane a lot in the future.''

Quick Links

Max Scherzer is having the best month of his career

scherzer-brilliance.jpg
USA TODAY Sports Images

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.

MORE NATIONALS NEWS:

 

Quick Links

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.

MORE ORIOLES NEWS: