Nationals

Tight ends have been key to Broncos turnaround

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Tight ends have been key to Broncos turnaround

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) Tight ends are no longer an afterthought in Denver's passing game.

In 2009, they had all of 27 catches.

Last year, that number was just 30 - not a single one of them in the end zone - as they were basically used as big bruising blockers in Tim Tebow's read-option offense.

Enter Peyton Manning and exit the notion of such paltry production from the Broncos tight ends, who are oftentimes more of a slot receiver than a run-blocker in the four-time MVP's world.

``Last year we had to de-emphasize the tight end's role in the offense because of the style that we had to evolve to. And we were running the ball a heck of a lot more, so we spent the bulk of our time doing that,'' tight ends coach Tony Barone said. ``The focus this year shifted back to getting the tight ends more involved and being more of a focal point in the passing game.''

Fellow free agents Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen lead a new group of Broncos tight ends that has collected 70 catches for 657 yards and six touchdowns so far.

That's the kind of production Barone was accustomed to seeing in a full season from two Pro Bowlers - Atlanta's Alge Crumpler and San Diego's Antonio Gates - that he tutored before coming to Denver.

``This collection's already surpassed that after 11 weeks,'' Barone said. ``And so I think that speaks volumes to their talents and Peyton's being able to spread the ball around.''

Tamme and Dreessen signed with the Broncos after Manning picked Denver for his comeback, and they're a big part of Manning's re-emergence. With Tamme and Dreessen, offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has two transposable tight ends to move around inside and out to create mismatches.

``It's a credit to them because they can run some of those same types of option routes or whatever with good speed and good hands,'' Manning said. ``Those guys have made a lot of plays for us this year.''

After signing Manning, front office boss John Elway went looking for the tight ends to provide the Broncos with the kind of flexibility and production Manning enjoyed in Indianapolis, where he worked with the likes of Dallas Clark, Ken Dilger, Marcus Pollard, Bryan Fletcher and, oh yes, Tamme.

They targeted Dreessen, a seventh-year pro who had all the ingredients and who really hit his stride over the last two seasons in Houston, ranking second in the NFL in percentage (15.6) of catches resulting in touchdowns - 10 of 64.

``Joel was a guy that went to Colorado State, was from the area, was a free agent, was available, we liked him, he had the opportunity to be the No. 1 tight end here, been with a winning organization,'' coach John Fox said, rattling off the attributes.

To really capitalize on Dreessen's skills, the Broncos needed another equally adept and experienced tight end to produce now and also bring along raw second-year hoopsters-turned-tight ends Virgil Green and Julius Thomas. And they needed one with the smarts and flexibility to line up on either side of the line, out wide or in tight, because in the no-huddle or hurry-up offense teams don't have the luxury of swapping tight ends during the drive.

Tamme was their guy. He could be Dreessen's twin. Same size, same build, same skills, same speed, same hands.

A fifth-year pro, Tamme had one thing Dreessen didn't: experience catching passes from Manning. He played his first four seasons in Indianapolis, where he converted to tight end after playing wide receiver at Kentucky, and he collected 67 catches for 631 yards and four TDs in 2010, the last season Manning played for the Colts.

The Broncos considered themselves lucky to land him.

``Jacob was a guy that happened to be available, a guy Peyton had a great comfort zone with,'' Fox said.

Both signed on March 29, eight days after Manning's arrival.

``Not that Joel and Jacob have 8,000 years in the league, but they have had experience in a similar offense that we were building,'' Fox said.

They've provided both the progress and production the Broncos needed from their tight ends this year.

``When I came in for a visit and sat down and talked with everybody, it felt like the right place,'' Tamme said. ``It felt like a place where we had a chance to do something big, and we do.''

Dreessen said he wanted to be more of a factor, regardless of stats. He didn't mind sharing the spotlight with Tamme, either.

``I've seen it best when it's kind of tight end by committee,'' Dreessen said. ``You stay fresher, you're more effective for the plays you are in there for. Coming here, I knew it was going to take both of us to get the job done and be special.''

Tamme loved the idea of teaming up with Dreessen to create one of the NFL's best tight end duos.

``I'm not really a guy that's been concerned about getting X amount of catches,'' Tamme said. ``Maybe we give up a little bit as individuals, but if you put the numbers together, it's great. I think it's good for our team and it's definitely been good for both of us, maybe not in the way of getting the best statistics that you could ever have, but in the end that's not what it's about.''

Notes: DE Robert Ayers missed practice all week following the unexpected death of his father last weekend and he's questionable Sunday when the Broncos (8-3) host Tampa Bay (6-5). ... Manning's former tight end target, Clark, has 31 catches for 320 yards and three TDs for the Buccaneers this season. ... After Friday's practice, Manning met his namesake, a 14-year-old eighth-grader from Littleton who's the captain of his hockey team. The QB signed a football for him that read: ``To Peyton, great name. All my best, your friend, Peyton Manning, 18.'' ... The Broncos hosted the St Kilda Saints of the Australian Football League at practice. The St Kilda Football Club is doing high altitude training at the University of Colorado in preparation for the 2013 season.

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Follow AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Melendrez Stapleton on Twitter:http://twitter.com/arniestapleton

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Patrick Corbin shuts out the Marlins, Nationals win second straight

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Patrick Corbin shuts out the Marlins, Nationals win second straight

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals beat the Miami Marlins, 5-0, Saturday to raise their record to 21-31. Here are five observations from the game...

1. Good defense Saturday.

A simplistic thing, yet perversely elusive this season for the Nationals.

Washington committed no errors. It turned three double-plays, allowing the bullpen to be used for just three outs. Brian Dozier made two quality plays -- including snagging a line . Trea Turner charged a ground and used his jump throw to gain an out. Anthony Rendon charged a ground and used his smoothness to throw to first for another. Adam Eaton made a nice sliding catch.

Friday was nasty in the field. The Nationals committed three errors, should have been charged with four. Turner committed two (and would have been the recipient of a third if not for generous scoring). Manager Davey Martinez was not pleased with what he called “sloppy” play Friday. They clean it up Saturday.

2. Corbin was back for the eighth inning, starting with 89 pitches behind him and a run of retiring 16 out of 17.

Miami did not use one left-handed hitter Saturday. The strategy mattered little to Corbin, who picked up three double plays on the day and closed the eighth with a strikeout of Bryan Holaday.

Corbin was removed just five innings into his last start after throwing 98 pitches. Manager Davey Martinez said then the Nationals wanted to keep Corbin under 100 pitches three starts after he threw a career-high 118 pitches and was on a run of throwing at least 107 pitches.

Saturday, he finished the eighth at 103. Corbin hit for himself, despite two runners on base with two out, and came back out for the ninth. A strikeout, flyout and groundout followed.

In all, four hits, no runs, one walk and five strikeouts on 116 pitches.

3. The fourth inning had a little bit of everything Saturday. Adam Eaton committed a major running gaffe. Juan Soto ran from third on a contact play, stopped just short of home plate, then veered left and slid in safe. Victor Robles squared to bunt and leaned in. A 96-mph fastball came up and in, grazed his cheek and sent him to the ground. Team trainer Paul Lessard and manager Davey Martinez immediately ran out at the behest of home plate umpire Tim Timmons. Robles was OK, went to first, then later scored from first base on a single to shallow right.

The Nationals scored five runs in the inning to jolt what was a scoreless game. Eaton’s running mistake -- he made a hard turn at second base, then was hung up in a rundown -- carried the start of the inning. But, Yan Gomes’ squibber to right field redeemed Eaton by scoring three.

4. Sean Doolittle stood at his locker Friday night in case the media wanted to talk to him postgame following his second consecutive rough outing. Reporters took a pass -- no need to talk to a player every time they have a bad night -- and Doolittle went to the back for his postgame maintenance.

His two outings this week vaulted his ERA up almost two runs, from 1.71 to 3.68, before Saturday’s game.

Martinez said Doolittle’s recent bumps are not health-related, despite a downtick in velocity. Doolittle was throwing around 92 mph Friday. He hit 94 mph, but his velocity was down for the most part.

“Credit to Doolittle,” Martinez said. “He knows his stuff wasn’t what he wanted it to be [Friday], but he fought through it. That’s what a good closer does sometimes. I’ve got all the confidence and faith in the world...He knows what he needs to do. When you have a guy like that, and a closer like that, they know how to work out their [issues] when they’re struggling, some of his spin rate stuff he’s going to look at. The biggest thing is I don’t want him to start thinking there’s something wrong with him. I told him that [Friday]: ‘You’re one of the best. You’re an elite closer. It’s OK. Guys go through that.

5. The Nationals called up right-handed reliever James Borque from Double-A Harrisburg on Saturday. Joe Ross, who allowed three earned runs in his Friday appearance and has a 9.22 ERA, was sent to Triple-A Fresno.

Borque arrives after quality work in Harrisburg: a 1.33 ERA, 33 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings. This is his first time on the major league roster. Borque believes better fastball command led to his success and subsequent call-up.

Ross lost the bite on his slider despite showing flashes of being an effective reliever. He will be "stretched out" in Fresno, though he is unlikely to be ready when the Nationals need a spot start April 29 in Atlanta. Kyle McGowin pitched in place of injured Anibal Sanchez (left hamstring strain) Friday. He allowed five earned runs in four innings and is unlikely to receive another opportunity.

Sanchez threw 41 pitches in a simulated game Friday. He felt well Saturday. Sanchez is expected to throw a bullpen session Sunday and make a rehabilitation start Wednesday.

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Past Nationals relievers: Where are they now?

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Past Nationals relievers: Where are they now?

It’s no secret that the Nationals bullpen is one of the weakest units in baseball this season. Fans in the nation’s capital have spent two months watching relievers cough up leads and put games out of reach, and the numbers speak for themselves. 

Washington’s team ERA among relievers is an unsightly 7.09 entering Memorial Day Weekend, nearly a full run higher than the 29th-ranked Orioles. As a unit, they’ve pitched fewer innings than any other bullpen, yet have allowed the second-most earned runs.

No one has been immune. Sean Doolittle, by far the best option in 2019, has seen his ERA balloon to 3.68. Justin Miller is the only other regular reliever with an ERA below 5, and he’s at 4.02.

It’s caused much consternation in the fanbase, and for good reason. Where did the Nationals go wrong in building this bullpen? What could they have done differently?

To answer that question, let’s take a look at four relievers who are experiencing various levels of success while no longer in Washington.

Felipe Vazquez

Vazquez has been lights out in Pittsburgh in 2019. He ranks top-10 among relievers in WAR (0.9) and top-12 in ERA (1.25). He holds the sixth-best K/9 (14.54) and is tied for the fourth-most saves in baseball with 13.

Every one of those numbers would lead the Nationals with ease. At 27, Vazquez has turned into one of the elite relievers in the sport. He’s been terrific all three years with the Pirates, and 2019 looks like his best season yet.

Of course, he wasn’t ready to be this guy in 2016 when the Nationals traded him for Mark Melancon. It was a necessary trade at the time, and one that worked out well in a vacuum. Melancon pitched well in Washington and didn’t allow a run in the 2016 postseason.

Right now, the Nats could really use a Felipe Vazquez, but the logic behind their trade at the time was sound.

Blake Treinen

Treinen has already allowed as many earned runs in 2019 (seven) as he did in all of 2018. It’s not a knock on his performance this season, where his 2.59 ERA would still lead the Nationals, but a recognition of just how dominant he was in 2018.

In the modern era of Major League Baseball, it’s just about impossible for a reliever to win the Cy Young. Even with just 80 innings pitched last year, Treinen finished sixth in Cy Young voting and 15th in MVP voting. 

That’s right. He was so good, he got down-ballot votes for MVP. It was a sensational year.

His usually-elite ground ball rate is down this season, which has led to some regression, but it’s still notable he put together a 2018 season that far outshines any individual season the Nats have seen.

It was clear in 2017 he wasn’t capable of performing as the team’s closer, eventually earning a demotion before being traded to Oakland.

Despite his enormous success in the years since the trade, it’s hard to question the Nationals here. Not only did it seem apparent Treinen wasn’t going to figure things out in D.C., but the trade brought back Sean Doolittle, the lone consistently great reliever the Nats have had in recent years.

Brandon Kintzler

Kintzler pitched parts of two seasons in Washington, but ultimately spent exactly one year with the Nationals. In that year, he tossed 68.2 innings while striking out 43 batters and walking 18.

His ERA with the Nationals was 3.54, too high for a high-leverage reliever. He struggled mightily in 2018 after being traded to the Cubs, but has settled down this season to the tune of a 2.96 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 24 innings.

As is the case for just about any halfway-decent reliever, the current Nationals bullpen would benefit from having him, but this isn’t nearly the loss Treinen or Vasquez were.

Shawn Kelley

Kelley was up-and-down in his time with the Nationals. His ERA was below three in 2016 and 2018, but the 2017 season was marred with injuries, inconsistency, and a tendency to allow home runs (a whopping 12 in just 26 innings).

Of course, Kelley was pitching better in 2018, but it wasn’t performance that led to his departure. 

In a blowout Nationals 25-4 victory over the Mets in July 2018, Kelley allowed three earned runs, including a home run. After the home run, he slammed his glove on the ground while staring at the Nats dugout.

The next day, he was designated for assignment as a result of the outburst and never pitched for the Nationals again, traded away a few days later. 

In his 33.2 innings since the trade, Kelley has been terrific. He posted a 2.16 ERA with the Athletics in 2018 and currently holds a 1.59 ERA in 2019 despite pitching his home games in Texas. He’s even filled in at closer with the Rangers, recording five saves so far this year.

Though his removal wasn’t for performance issues like Kintzler's or to acquire proven closers like Treinen’s and Vasquez’s were, the loss of Kelley can be felt just as hard. As is the case with each of these relievers, Kelley’s numbers would lead the Nationals bullpen in just about every category.

For the most part, these moves made sense at the time, for one reason or another. But the Nationals have yet to adequately replace most of these arms, and the 2019 team is suffering as a result.

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