Nationals

Texans look to young LBs as injuries mount

Texans look to young LBs as injuries mount

HOUSTON (AP) Injuries have left the Houston Texans thin at linebacker.

With star Brian Cushing (knee) out for the season and starter Brooks Reed out indefinitely with a groin injury, young players Whitney Mercilus and Darryl Sharpton will be counted on to keep the defense rolling as the Texans (10-1) play for postseason positioning.

``How far we go, how well we play, how we hang on here and keep working has a lot to do with how they play,'' coach Gary Kubiak said. ``We have confidence in them.''

Adding to the trouble, inside linebacker Bradie James, who has started every game for Houston this season, is day to day with a hamstring injury.

``That's the way this game is,'' said James, a 10-year veteran. ``I've never been around a team that had that many injuries in one position like we've had this year. But we're big boys. That's the NFL. Guys will step up, I'm sure.''

Sharpton missed the first nine games of the season after tearing his right quadriceps in October 2011. He had seven tackles against Chicago before starting against Detroit and finishing with six.

Kubiak has been impressed with Sharpton's effort, but said he and the other young guys have some things they need to work on this week.

``We need to eliminate some mistakes we made last week,'' Kubiak said. ``We're trying to really isolate those guys. Sharpton's getting a ton of practice.''

Tim Dobbins missed last week's game after injuring his left shoulder against the Bears. He is practicing again, and his return should be a boost to the group. Dobbins has started four games in Cushing's old spot since he was injured Oct. 8.

The Texans have turned in two of their worst defensive performances of the season in the past two weeks, both overtime wins by Houston. They have allowed 983 yards and 68 points in the past two games, after yielding just 28 points in their previous three games combined.

The Texans will try to shore up the unit by putting rookie first-round pick Mercilus in at starter on the weak side this week, and moving Connor Barwin from the weak side to the strong side to fill in for Reed.

The 6-foot-4, 254-pound Mercilus was a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme at Illinois but has moved to outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' 3-4 alignment. He has appeared in each game this season, but his first start will come this week.

He has 17 tackles, has forced two fumbles and has defended one pass this season. His teammates have seen enough of him to believe that he will fill in just fine as a starter.

``I'm fully confident in Whitney,'' Reed said. ``He works very hard and now he's going to get his chance to show why we drafted him in the first round. I think it will be fun to watch to see what he can do.''

Kubiak liked what he saw from Mercilus against the Lions and said he is improving each week.

``Whitney did some good things in the game,'' Kubiak said. ``He has played his best football for us the past month and we need that to continue.''

The injuries to Houston's linebackers are also taking a toll on the Texans' special teams. Mercilus has played virtually every play on special teams this season, and Sharpton and fellow linebackers Bryan Braman and Barrett Ruud are also key contributors to the group.

Now that Mercilus and Sharpton are moving into starting roles, Kubiak said he'll have to shuffle some things around to make sure they aren't playing too much.

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Nationals win despite having to turn to little-known pitcher for pivotal start

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Nationals win despite having to turn to little-known pitcher for pivotal start

WASHINGTON -- If any bump was coming from a return home or Mike Rizzo’s public pregame words or simply being out of New York, it was not apparent Friday.

Three errors committed in the first four innings. The first reliever into the game, Joe Ross, allowed three earned runs before recording a second out. Starter Kyle McGowin barely made it through the fourth inning of an eventual and desperately needed 12-10 win.

The rally kept the Nationals from creeping toward of new level of dubiousness in this muck-filled season. They pushed 2 ½ games in front of the Marlins for the National League’s worst record. Juan Soto hit a three-run homer in the eighth. Matt Adams followed with a solo homer. Sean Doolittle had trouble, but closed the game. Those efforts kept this from being another story about the bullpen (five more runs allowed Friday).

So, here’s a different question to ponder (there are a million or none, depending on point of view) after Friday night: How did the Nationals end up with 27-year-old McGowin starting a surprisingly pivotal game?

The nuts-and-bolts version is because of injuries. Both Anibal Sanchez -- who threw a simulation game Friday -- and Jeremy Hellickson are on the injured list. The deeper answer comes from looking at the recent erosion of pitchers in Washington’s minor-league system.

McGowin made his second career start Friday because there is no one else. No hot minor-league prospect, no early-round pick who has been up and down and received another shot, no veteran stashed in the minor leagues for such situations.

Looming behind all of this is the 2016 trade of three pitching prospects to acquire Adam Eaton. Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning were all sent to Chicago for Eaton’s advanced-stats and cost-friendly contract. The departure of three starting pitchers in one shot reverberated Friday when the Nationals were forced to use McGowin in a spot start as the seventh starter of the season.

This is more a volume than quality issue. Neither Lopez or Giolito were effective in limited chances at the major-league level with Washington before being traded. Once in Chicago, Giolito became arguably the worst pitcher in baseball in 2018. No one allowed more earned runs or walks that season. Lopez had a quality season, finishing with 3.1 WAR.

The two have reversed outcomes in 2019. Giolito has rediscovered his velocity. After throwing 100 mph in the 2015 Futures Game, his velocity caved. Giolito was down to 92-93 mph with the Nationals and, initially, Chicago. Thursday, he hit 97 mph in the ninth inning of a shutout against Houston. The outing drove his ERA down to 2.77.

Lopez is struggling. His 5.14 ERA is venturing toward Giolito’s status of a year ago. His walk total -- always the concern -- is up, as are his homers allowed.

But what Giolito and Lopez have, at age 24 and 25, respectively, is potential. Giolito, who often fussed with his mechanics in Washington, has discovered a delivery to expedite his fastball and an approach to boost the effectiveness of his changeup. Lopez’s 2018 showed he can be a solid back-end rotation member. They were expected to follow behind Erick Fedde and Joe Ross in establishing a future rotation. But, those two are in Chicago, Ross is in the bullpen, where he gave up three runs Friday, and Fedde just returned to the rotation after being moved to the bullpen.

So, it was McGowin on the mound Friday. Four innings, six hits, five runs, one walk, two strikeouts, two home runs allowed. Why? No better choice is available.

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Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic and Nationals grant boys wish to be a player for a day

Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic and Nationals grant boys wish to be a player for a day

The Nationals welcomed 10-year-old cancer patient Parker Staples as the newest addition to their team on Friday, in conjunction with the Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic Foundation.

While battling lymphoma, Staples learned he would receive a wish and didn’t hesitate about what he wanted to choose. After being sidelined for two years during treatment, Parker couldn’t wait to celebrate his remission by becoming part of his favorite baseball team. 

Staples was introduced to his new teammates and got signed autographs from Matt Adams, Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, and Yan Gomes. He also got to spend time hitting and playing catch with his new teammates, as well as being interviewed as the newest member of the team. It gets even better than that, Staples threw the ceremonial first pitch at Nationals Park leading up to the Marlins-Nationals game Staples 

"My favorite moment was throwing the first pitch. It was really cool," Staples said.

"Probably the biggest day of my life."

The Nationals are hosted the Miami Marlins in the series opener Friday.

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