Nationals

Still eying playoffs, Saints get ready for Falcons

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Still eying playoffs, Saints get ready for Falcons

METAIRIE, La. (AP) Drew Brees happily entertains playoff possibilities for the New Orleans Saints, figuring that the question of whether a 5-6 team deserves to be in the NFC wild card race is irrelevant.

He has a point.

Despite an 0-4 start and their latest loss on Sunday to San Francisco, New Orleans remains one game out with five games left. To Brees, that means the Saints are virtually in control of their playoff fate - even if that is not entirely the case.

``Regardless of how this season started, that seems like so long ago,'' Brees said Monday, a day after New Orleans saw its three-game winning streak snapped. ``We've just come so far since then. We really have everything lined right in front of us. Despite everything, we've got it all right in front of us. We really control our own destiny.''

Had the Saints prolonged their winning streak against the NFC West-leading Niners, they would have arrived at work on Monday tied for the final NFC Wild Card spot at 6-5 because Seattle, Minnesota and Tampa Bay - the teams New Orleans is chasing - all lost on Sunday.

So the Saints head to their Thursday night showdown at NFC South Division rival Atlanta (10-1) still alive for a postseason berth, but with minimal room for error and a tough schedule ahead.

New Orleans will need Seattle, Minnesota and Tampa Bay to lose. Of those teams, only the Buccaneers appear on the Saints' remaining schedule.

``The margin for error is very slight right now. We've kind of used up our nine lives,'' Brees said. ``So we've got to really bear down here and just understand what's at stake every time we step on the field.''

After New Orleans visits Atlanta, its next game is at the NFC East-leading New York Giants, which will cap a string of three straight games against NFC division leaders.

For Brees, even the loss to San Francisco was an indication of how far the Saints have come since stumbling from their offseason bounty scandal to an early season losing streak.

The Saints held a 14-7 lead late in the first half before the Niners returned two interceptions for touchdowns. The Saints still rallied for another touchdown and remained very much in the game in the second half.

``It's tough because I know we played well enough to win in so many ways and yet, two plays like that can just completely change the outcome of a game, which obviously those did. I was really encouraged walking away from that game in a lot of ways,'' Brees said. ``I feel like we can beat that team, should beat that team. But listen, they're really, really good. They're going to be in the hunt just like we want to be in the hunt. We might see them later on. For us, it's a short week. We've got to be able to turn it right around.''

Meanwhile, the Saints' defense, although still ranked last in the NFL, continued showing improvement, giving up a relatively few 17 points to the 49ers' offense and allowing fewer than 400 total yards for the first time all season.

``The defensive guys came out and played with the right attitude,'' first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said, adding that there is ``more confidence in our room than before.

``We need to carry that into Atlanta because this is another good offense that we're facing and we don't have a lot of time to prepare,'' Spagnuolo continued. ``We are getting better as a unit. It is coming together. There's no question. Guys are making plays. They're more comfortable. There's more reacting than reading. A lot less tentative play.''

Before losing to the Niners, the Saints had rallied to even their record at 5-5 and re-establish themselves as realistic playoff hopefuls.

``I feel no differently about our football team right now than I did yesterday morning when we woke up and (had) won five of our previous six games,'' assistant head coach Joe Vitt said. ``This team works hard. This team is together. This team does not point fingers. We are moving on.''

Brees noted that when a good team loses, it can't wait to get back on the field, so that is what is good about playing on Thursday night.

However, it leaves less time to recover from injuries - and New Orleans had a few.

Safety Isa Abdul-Quddus, a reserve who plays regularly, left the game after a heavy collision over the middle with Niners tight end Delanie Walker. Coaches said Abdul-Quddus is due for some concussion testing this week and his status for Thursday is unclear.

Also out Thursday will be rookie right tackle Bryce Harris, who left the first quarter of his first start on Sunday with a lower right leg injury. Harris had been pressed into a starting role following injuries to regular starter Zach Strief (left groin) and his backup, Charles Brown (right knee).

Harris' injury forced Will Robinson, signed to the roster last week, to step in.

Vitt said Strief could be ready on Thursday. Still, the Saints were bringing in several free-agent linemen for tryouts, Vitt said.

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Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

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USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

ST. LOUIS -- Koda Glover rewarded his manager's faith.

Bryce Harper had three hits and drove in three runs, Glover earned the save in the first opportunity since Ryan Madson was placed on the disabled list, and the Washington Nationals snapped a four-game losing streak with a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night.

The Nationals won for just the third time in their last 10 games and snapped the Cardinals' season-high, eight-game winning streak.

"We needed a win today," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "Get on that plane, have a nice happy flight and come back tomorrow and be at home and be ready."

Tanner Roark (8-12) gave up four runs, three earned, in six innings.

A beleaguered bullpen that had blown two leads to start the losing streak took care of the rest. Justin Miller pitched two scoreless innings before Glover closed it out.

"There's been a lot of changes (in the bullpen)," Miller said. "It's unfortunate, a couple of injuries and stuff like that, but I don't really look at it as I've got the seventh or eighth or anything like that. I'm just going out there just trying to do my job."

Glover took the loss in the series opener on Monday, giving up a game-ending homer to Paul DeJong.

"The first game of the series didn't go as I would have liked for it to have went," Glover said. "So to get put back in that situation or even a better situation to get a save, I'm happy with that outcome."

Harper drove in the game's first run with a double in the first and knocked in two more with a bases-loaded single in the fourth to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead.

A pair of errors helped the Nationals extend their lead to 5-1 in the fifth. St. Louis committed three errors in the game after committing just four total errors during the winning streak.

"A couple plays clearly we expect to make and will make and just didn't go our way for a little bit there," Cardinals interim manager Mike Shildt said. "To the guys' credit they regrouped, settled down, and started playing back to the baseball they know they can play."

The Nationals had opportunities to pad the lead, leaving the bases loaded in the third and fifth while stranding nine runners in the first five innings.

"When you have an opportunity to put teams away you've got to do that," Martinez said. "Especially with how hot the Cardinals are playing right now. They're going to come back."

The Cardinals got within one in the sixth. After DeJong and Kolten Wong came up with back-to-back, two-out RBI hits, Harrison Bader hit a slow grounder to third. Anthony Rendon's throw to first got away from Ryan Zimmerman for an error, allowing Wong to score from second to cut the Nationals' lead to 5-4.

Just two of the four runs Luke Weaver (6-11) allowed in his 3 2/3 innings were earned. He gave up seven hits, including two to Roark, who scored both times.

Tyson Ross allowed one unearned run in 3 1/3 innings of relief.

Bader homered in the third and Matt Carpenter walked twice to extend his on-base streak to a career-high 34 games.

TRAINING ROOM

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson will have an MRI on his sore right wrist on Friday. RHP Joe Ross (right elbow surgery) threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings at Class A Potomac on Thursday and is hoping for a September return.

Cardinals: RHP Carlos Martinez (right shoulder strain) will begin a rehab Friday at Double-A Springfield. RHP Adam Wainwright (right elbow inflammation) threw two scoreless innings Thursday night at High-A Palm Beach.

UP NEXT

Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (15-5, 2.19 ERA) will take the mound as the Nationals return home for a three-game series Friday night against the Miami Marlins and RHP Dan Straily (4-5, 4.42 ERA). Scherzer is 3-0 with a 3.43 ERA in three starts this season against the Marlins.

Cardinals: RHP Jack Flaherty (6-6, 3.22 ERA) kicks off a three-game series Friday night as the Cardinals host the Milwaukee Brewers and RHP Freddy Peralta (5-3, 4.47 ERA). Flaherty struck out a career-high 13 batters in his last start against the Brewers on June 22.

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

In April, it would have been unfathomable. In May, it would have been laughable. In June, it would have been improbable. In July, it started to look possible. In August, it might even have been likely. Now, it’s a complete toss-up.

Juan Soto is the worthiest National League Rookie of the Year. So is Ronald Acuna.

It’s one of the most exciting rookie races in recent memory, not simply for the otherworldly numbers each freshman sensation is putting up, but for just how good they are at such young ages. Juan Soto is a jaw-dropping 19. Acuna, by comparison, is the wizened veteran at the old age of.. 20. 

The two are preternaturally talented, and their mature-beyond-their-years games have translated perfectly well to the big leagues. The question now is: which one will actually take home the hardware?

(Before we continue, I’ll note that Jack Flaherty, Brian Anderson, and Walker Buehler are all very talented young players who would at least be in the conversation in normal years).

The first step is to look at the numbers.

On the season Acuna is slashing .287/.347/.571, and his wRC+ is 144. He’s got 19 home runs and 8 stolen bases in just 68 games and his fWAR is 2.3. bWAR has him at 2.8

Soto’s slash line is currently .293/.420/.534, to go along with 15 home runs. His wRC+ is 153, and his fWAR is 2.7. His bWAR sits at 2.2.

Obviously, the numbers are terrific for both. Acuna has been up longer, but thanks to injury Soto has actually played 8 more games. Acuna has the edge in power, both in home runs and slugging percentage, plus he’s clearly the speedier player and better defender. If you’re looking for all-around game, he’s probably your man. Plus, for those who care about such things when voting on awards, the Braves are several games ahead of the Nats in the standings.

However, Soto’s performance has a couple things going for it. First of all, as impressive as it is that Acuna is taking the league by storm as a 20-year old, Soto is nearly a full year younger. It cannot be overemphasized how wild it is what Soto is doing as a teenager. He may very well be the greatest teenage batter in baseball history.

Secondly, Soto has been incredibly consistent. He’s basically been an All-Star level hitter since the day he was called up in May, whereas Acuna’s numbers, while very legitimate, are buoyed by his recent hot streak. He’s hit 8 home runs in 8 games, and of every hitter with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star Game, he has the highest wRC+ in that span. He’s had plenty of valleys to his peaks, though, and Soto has been a model of consistency. Of all hitters with at 200 at-bats this entire season, Soto ranks 7th over the entire season, That’s astounding.

Another point in Soto’s favor is just how historic his numbers are. Voters love a narrative, and as mentioned above, Soto is having literally the best offensive season a teenager has ever had. The highest wRC+ by a 19-year old in baseball history in Mel Ott with a 140 exactly 90 seasons ago. Soto is beating that by 13 so far.

The true separator, though, is Soto’s on-base percentage. His .420 mark is a comfortable 4th of all players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind elite batting eyes Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Joey Votto. And, once again, we’re talking about something historic.

Soto’s .420 on-base percentage, if it holds, will be the only OBP over .400 for a teenager with 200 plate appearances in Major League history. In fact, outside of Ott’s .397 in 1928, no other teenager has ever reached base at a .360 clip, let alone Soto’s astronomical .420.

Ultimately, I believe more in Acuna’s future, but I think Soto’s been the better player this season. Acuna is more well-rounded, but Soto’s elite batting eye has made him a top 10 hitter in baseball already. If Soto had been up on Opening Day and played at this level, he’d be on pace for a 5.5 WAR, which would top even Bryce Harper’s 2012 season.

As mentioned, voters love a narrative though, and if Acuna comes back from his injury and stays as hot as he’s been all August, it’ll be tough to ignore his performance during the Braves’ stretch run. This award is not over, but for now, Soto should be considered the favorite.

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