Nationals

Tuck, Giants ready for Falcons' new offense

Tuck, Giants ready for Falcons' new offense

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) Giants defensive end Justin Tuck would have loved to use last year's 24-2 wildcard playoff victory as a blueprint for defending quarterback Matt Ryan and Falcons on Sunday.

But he warned Wednesday that Atlanta (11-2), which would hold the top seed if the NFC playoffs were to start this week, is different from the team that was held to a mere second-quarter safety last year in the Meadowlands.

New offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has installed a more varied offense. The Giants (8-4) expect to see it.

``They're a little bit mixed up,'' Tuck said. ``I thought at the end of last year, they were a little bit more leaning on the pass.''

Ryan can still throw the ball, of course, and Roddy White, Julio Jones, and Tony Gonzalez do their fair share of getting open. But these Falcons also heavily rely on running backs Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers, and the results show.

``On offense, they want to keep the chains moving, and they're kind of a check-with-me offense,'' Tuck said. ``It's going to be a chess match a little more than it was last year.''

Tuck and his teammates might better benefit from a look at what Carolina did to the Falcons in a 30-20 Panthers' win last Sunday. That defense sacked Ryan, the conference's fifth-leading passer, twice, hit him six times, and forced him into his 13th interception.

Ryan still managed to throw touchdown passes to White and Jones, but they didn't come until the second half, after the Panthers snared a 23-0 lead. The Falcons were held to 13 first-half snaps.

``Thirteen snaps in the first half, yeah, that would be nice,'' coach Tom Coughlin said. ``A high-powered offense, with the other team having the ball is a pretty good way to go.''

The loss to the Panthers aside, the Falcons have been able to move the ball this season quite well. Turner has 689 yards rushing, and Rodgers, the change of pace, has 295. Even Ryan has an 8.2-yard average when he runs the ball, to go along with his 24 touchdown passes.

Making this task more difficult for the Giants is the injury status of right cornerback Prince Amukamara, who sat out practice Wednesday with a strained hamstring. Reserve cornerback Jayron Hosley could move into that spot, but it is also possible that Antrel Rolle, who takes the slot receiver in passing situations, could also move into Amukamara's spot.

Whoever plays there will likely have to deal with White most of the game, while the safeties and middle linebacker Chase Blackburn try to handle Gonzalez. The 36-year-old tight end, with 81 catches and seven touchdowns, remains especially dangerous on third down, where he has averaged 9.7 yards.

``He's still got it,'' Blackburn said. ``You can't say enough about the guy. I'd love to play as long and still be effective.''

The Giants excelled on third-down chances in the playoffs vs. Atlanta, turning the Falcons back on 10 of 14 tries. They also stopped all three fourth-down attempts, including two Ryan sneaks.

Ryan said beating the NFC East leaders starts with controlling one of the best pass-rushing front fours in football. Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, Chris Canty and Tuck have accounted for 17 of the team's 31 sacks.

``The Giants are probably the best in the league,'' Ryan said. ``They've got three top-tier pass rushers, and we know that from playing them last year. They'll present us with a difficult challenge. Their front four is very solid. For four quarters, they rush the passer as well as anybody in the league.

``You have to scheme the four guys, and keep your running backs and tight ends in good position to pass protect.''

Reproducing last week's four-turnover effort against the Saints won't hurt, either.

``We just have to make sure Ryan doesn't get too comfortable back there,'' Tuck said. ``Otherwise, it's going to be a long day for us.''

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NOTES: RB Ahmad Bradshaw (knee) missed practice, and Coughlin kept open the possibility that rookie backup David Wilson could start against the Falcons. Bradshaw spent the portion of practice open to the media getting treatment in the locker room. ... S Kenny Phillips (knee) also missed practice. ... The Giants are 3-0 already vs. the NFC South.

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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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