Nationals

The ugliest 2-0 team in the NFL is...

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The ugliest 2-0 team in the NFL is...

From Comcast SportsNetPHILADELPHIA (AP) -- With the game on the line, Michael Vick made all the right decisions -- again.Vick scored on a 1-yard TD run with 1:55 left, helping the Philadelphia Eagles overcome a slew of turnovers to beat the Baltimore Ravens 24-23 on Sunday for their second straight comeback win.The Eagles are 2-0 for the first time since Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens led them to the Super Bowl in 2004."In the moment, you have to be at your best," Vick said. "It's got to be an any-means-necessary mentality."Rookie kicker Justin Tucker made field goals of 56, 51 and 48 yards for the Ravens, but Joe Flacco couldn't get Baltimore (1-1) in his range in the final minute.Flacco overthrew Ray Rice on fourth-and-1 from the Ravens 46, and the Eagles ran out the clock.Vick threw four interceptions at Cleveland last week, but rallied the Eagles to a 17-16 win.He did it again, though the replacement officials almost made a costly mistake.Down 23-17, the Eagles started at their 20 with 4:43 left. Vick threw passes of 24 and 13 yards to Brent Celek. A 19-yard pass to Clay Harbor coupled with a roughing-the-passer penalty put the ball at the 3.Vick then threw incomplete as he was being hit by Haloti Ngata, but the play was ruled a fumble and it was recovered by the Ravens. A replay overturned the call and Vick scored on the next play."There's some serious calls the refs missed," Baltimore's Ray Lewis said. "It's just the way it is, man, all around the league. We have to correct that. These games are critical. Guys are giving everything they've got all across the league. But these are calls, with the regular refs, if they were here, we know the way the calls would be made."The Eagles committed three turnovers in the red zone in the first half and lost two starting offensive linemen in the second. They have nine turnovers in two games, a major reason why they only have 41 points despite totaling 942 yards of offense."We have to get better at it," coach Andy Reid said. "You have to take care of the football. You have to throw the football to the right person. This isn't something we planned on having."Vick finished 23 of 32 for 371 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Celek had eight catches for 157 yards and DeSean Jackson had seven receptions for 114 yards.This was a homecoming of sorts for Flacco and Ravens coach John Harbaugh. Flacco grew up in nearby Haddon Township, N.J. Harbaugh spent 10 seasons as an assistant under Reid before going to Baltimore in 2008.Tucker almost made them winners.An undrafted rookie out of Texas, Tucker beat out veteran kicker Billy Cundiff in the preseason and has made all six of his field goals in the first two games.Tucker's 56-yarder at the end of the first half sent the Ravens into the locker room up 17-7. His 51-yarder early in the fourth made it 20-17.Cundiff was 1-for-6 from beyond 50 yards last year, and missed a potential game-tying, 32-yarder against New England in the waning seconds of the AFC championship game."I think we'll be just fine coming out of this going forward," Harbaugh said.Two plays after center Jason Kelce sprained his right knee and was carted back to the locker room, the Eagles got within 17-14 on Vick's 23-yard TD pass to Jeremy Maclin. Vick scrambled to his left and threw on the run to Maclin, who slipped behind coverage and went to his knees to make a nifty catch.Philadelphia lost two more starters on its next drive. First, King Dunlap left with a hamstring injury. Maclin was then carted off with a hip pointer after making a block on Celek's 24-yard catch. Celek hurdled Ed Reed to gain a few extra yards on the play. Still, the Eagles reached the 5 before settling for Alex Henery's tying 23-yard field goal.The starting quarterbacks were coming off opposite performances in Week 1. While Vick struggled against the Browns, Flacco was near-flawless in a dominant 44-13 win against Cincinnati last Monday night.Flacco was 22 of 42 for 232 yards, one TD and one interception against Philadelphia.Despite the makeshift line blocking for him, Vick didn't take as many hard hits and was sacked only twice. He scrambled eight times for 36 yards before kneeling twice at the end.Using the no-huddle from the start, the Eagles moved the ball effectively to the Ravens 12. But Vick made another errant throw and was intercepted in the end zone by Bernard Pollard. Vick scrambled out of the pocket and had space, but he fired opposite his momentum."You can't always hit a home run," Vick said. "Sometimes you have to settle for singles and doubles. That's what I have to learn. I can't force the ball."Trent Cole stripped Flacco on Baltimore's second play and Cullen Jenkins recovered at the Ravens 15.McCoy ran in from the 1 for a 7-0 lead.Vonta Leach scored on a 5-yard TD run to tie it at 7.After the Ravens failed to convert on a fake punt -- Sean Considine ran 3 yards on fourth-and-4 -- the Eagles took over at Baltimore's 45. The drive ended in another turnover. Rookie Bryce Brown fumbled a handoff on third-and-1 at the 20, and Albert McClellan recovered at the 30.Flacco connected with Jacoby Jones on a 21-yard TD pass to give the Ravens a 14-7 lead.The Eagles drove to the Ravens 9 before Lardarius Webb caused McCoy to fumble. Lewis recovered and was slammed down to the ground by Vick. McCoy had one fumble last year when he was an All-Pro. He already has lost two in two games.Notes: Rice ran for 99 yards and caught six passes for 53 more. ... Eagles improved to 5-9 in home openers under Reid and won one for first time since 2008. ... Tucker's 56-yard FG tied Wade Richey for longest in Ravens history. ... Entering the season, McCoy had lost one fumble in the previous 28 games, spanning 565 touches. He lost his second on his 36th touch. ... Dallas Reynolds replaced Kelce at center and took his first snap in the NFL.

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Joe Maddon's protest prompts Sean Doolittle to call his act 'tired'

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Joe Maddon's protest prompts Sean Doolittle to call his act 'tired'

WASHINGTON -- Sean Doolittle stood at his locker in the clubhouse still roiled by what occurred in the ninth inning Saturday. 

His clean inning for his eighth save was not on his mind. Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon was.

The Cubs appeared to enact a pre-planned grouse when they say Doolittle next. Chicago quality assurance coach Chris Denorfia was talking to the umpires as Doolittle warmed up in the 5-2 game. Following Doolittle's first pitch, Maddon popped out of the dugout to begin his banter, and eventual protest, of Doolittle's delivery.

At question was Doolittle's toe tap. With no runners on base, he raises his front leg, drops and holds it for a count, then grazes the dirt with is cleat before he fully comes to the plate. Doolittle started this almost a year ago during a late May series in Miami. No one had complained since -- until Maddon emerged from the Cubs' dugout.

If the umpires deem the move illegal, the outcome is a ball called with the bases empty or a balk called with runners on base. Saturday, home plate umpire Sam Holbrook told Doolittle he was doing nothing wrong. Which turned the postgame discussion around the event to Maddon's intentions. 

A starting point would be one of Maddon's relievers, Carl Edwards Jr., tried to add a similar move in spring training. But Edwards was putting his full foot on the ground and was told the move was illegal. 
Doolittle was more inclined to believe Maddon's primary motivation was to rattle him at the start of the save opportunity, and he calmly, but clearly, took digs at Maddon for the process. 

"After the first time Joe came out, the home plate umpire was like you're fine, just keep it moving," Doolittle said. "Don't start, stop and start again. Just keep it moving. I was like, that's what I do all the time anyway, so...in that moment, he's not trying to do anything other than rattle me and it was kind of tired. I don't know. Sometimes he has to remind people how smart he is and how much he pays attention to the game and stuff like that. He put his stamp on it for sure. 

"I actually have to thank him. After they came out the second, the [Kyle] Schwarber at-bat, I threw two fastballs and a slider and a fastball to [Kris] Bryant and those were probably the best ones I've thrown in a while. I don't do the tap when there's somebody on base so I can keep my pickoff move available if I need it. I've had a lot of traffic recently, so I've had practice doing it, so it wasn't like a huge adjustment to me. I don't know. In a way, I kind of need to thank him."
Doolittle wasn't finished. He was later asked if he thought Maddon was trying to get him to change his mechanics.

"Well, yeah, that's part of the mind game that he was trying to play and I get that," Doolittle said. "I guess I should take it as a compliment that he felt like he had to do that in order to try to throw me off my game in that situation. They're trying to get you to over-think it and change something in the middle of a save opportunity to give them a chance where you start making mistakes or are over-thinking it. 

"But once the home plate umpire tells me, he said, you're fine, just keep it moving, it's just a tap, at this point, I've been doing it for over a year. We're a month-and-a-half into the season, so I know their guy had to make an adjustment; I thought it was a thinly veiled attempt to kind of throw me off."

Members of the Nationals staff were also irked. Among their concerns was the chance for Doolittle to injure himself if he suddenly changed his delivery.
Maddon was adamant the situation was created by Edwards not being allowed to alter his delivery.

“It’s really simple," Maddon said. "That’s exactly what Carl (Edwards) was told he can’t do. And I was told it was an illegal pitch and he can’t do it. I went to Sam (Holbrook), and I told him that. And he said, ‘in our judgment.’ I said, ‘there’s no judgment. If he taps the ground, it’s an illegal pitch, period.’ There’s nothing to judge. You can judge whether he did or not. It’s obvious that he did. If you can’t tell that, then there’s something absolutely wrong. So that was my argument.

"I said if you guys don’t clean it up, I’m going to protest the game.  So we protested the game. For me, I don’t know how many he actually did make that were illegal pitches. I don’t know how they’re going to rule with this. It’s their rule. It’s not mine. I didn’t ask for it in the first place. They took it away from Carl. They took it away from (Cory) Gearrin. They’ve taken it away from a couple guys and they seem to be somewhat aware, but not aware of what had happened."

Wherever the truth resides, Saturday night became another installment in the oddities when Chicago and Washington play. The Cubs walked Bryce Harper 13 times in 19 plate appearances in 2016. The 2017 five-game National League Division Series which ended in Nationals Park included Stephen Strasburg's mystery illness and PR gaffe about who would pitch Game 4 in Chicago. Add Saturday night to the strangeness and buckle up for Sunday's series finale.

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Strasburg dazzles as another quick start leads to a Nationals win

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Strasburg dazzles as another quick start leads to a Nationals win

The Washington Nationals bounced back to beat the Chicago Cubs, 5-2, Saturday to improve to 19-26. Here are five observations from the game…

1. Davey Martinez can’t draw up a night on the mound much better than riding Stephen Strasburg long enough to get to one inning of Sean Doolittle.

Of course, that was only possible thanks to the brilliance of Strasburg, who tossed eight stellar innings Saturday. He was efficient throughout, throwing just 93 pitches and walking only one. Strasburg allowed four hits, two runs (only one earned), and struck out seven Cubs.

Strasburg “only” induced 15 swinging strikes, far from his best number this season, but still pretty good. It didn’t matter, especially with how quickly he was able to make work of the Cubs, getting ground ball after ground ball all night long.

NBC Sports Washington’s own Todd Dybas pointed out midway through the start how Strasburg was going back to his fastball after multiple starts in this recent successful stretch where he featured his curveball prominently. That pattern held throughout his eight innings, and tonight, nearly half (7) of Strasburg’s swinging strikes came on the four-seamer.

Strasburg’s success tonight continues a great recent stretch. He’s allowed just 10 earned runs in his last 42.1 innings, spanning six starts. He’s got 54 strikeouts and just six walks in those starts, a remarkable 9:1 ratio. 

It all adds up to one of the best stretches of Strasburg’s career, as he continues to cement himself as one of three true aces on the current Washington staff. And tonight may have been the most impressive outing yet, considering how deep he went into the game and how hot the opponent’s bats had been.

2. The Nationals are hoping their lineup sees an uptick in performance with guys like Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, and Trea Turner getting back in the swing of things after time on the IL. Those three combined for five hits, three RBI and three runs Saturday.

But it would go a long way for the offense if Brian Dozier finds his stroke as well.

The powerful second baseman is a notoriously slow starter, but when he gets on a hot streak, he can carry a team. It’s only two games, but this may be the start of one of his patented “in the zone” streaks at the plate.

Dozier has gone 3-for-4 and 2-for-4 in back to back games, including a stretch where he reach base six straight times. That includes tonight’s home run to start the scoring for the Nats.

It’s been hard to fault Davey Martinez for his daily lineup construction with all the injuries. Now that his team is getting healthy, it will be interesting to see where Dozier fits in. The top of the order seems well set with Turner, Rendon, and Soto sandwiching one or two of Howie Kendrick, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton. 

Where does that leave Dozier? Probably in the 6-7 range. But if he keeps swinging the bat like he has against the Cubs, that could change. In a week, Martinez has gone from not having enough viable options to potentially having too many. I’m sure he’s happier with the latter.

3. A pattern has emerged in recent wins for the Nationals. When they get off to a quick start, they win. When they don’t, they lose.

In four of their last five victories, the Nats have scored first, including early-inning leads of at least three runs in each game.

In the four losses during the same stretch, the opposing team scored first each time, including three times in the first inning. In those losses, the Nationals were ultimately outscored by a combined 31-8.

In other words, quick starts have been crucial to the team’s success. It’s a narrative that would make sense even if the numbers didn’t back it up. With the way the team has struggled so consistently this season, it would be natural to feel deflated after an early deficit. That feeling is magnified with the lack of faith in the bullpen's ability to keep games within reach.

Saturday night against the Cubs kept this pattern going, with the Nats jumping on the board first with a Brian Dozier home run in the second inning, followed by the three-run fourth inning. That would prove to be all the support Strasburg needed, and once again Washington was able to ride early momentum to a relatively easy win.

4. The team as a whole was looking to bounce back Saturday night, but so was their best reliever.

Doolittle has been, far and away, the most reliable, valuable member of the Nationals bullpen in 2019, but against the Mets Thursday, he wasn’t himself. The lefty allowed four hits and two earned runs in his inning of work, walking one and striking out two on 31 pitches.

Coming off his worst inning of the season, Doolittle was back to his usual self against the Cubs.  He only needed seven pitches (six strikes) to make quick work of Chicago in the top of the ninth inning and earn his eighth save, even with some funny business.

Joe Maddon came out to protest with the umpires about Doolittle tapping his toe on the mound after beginning his windup. It’s a move the Cubs’ own Carl Edwards Jr. had been banned from doing, so his manager was obviously upset to see the Nats’ star closer getting away with something similar.

It’s unclear if anything else will come from the points Maddon brought up, but on Saturday at least, Doolittle was unfazed even after getting “iced” by the opposing manager.

5. For all the struggles the Nats have faced this season, they might be in the midst of a turning point.

It may not feel like it to frustrated fans who just want to see the team reel off several straight wins, but the Nationals have put themselves in position to potentially "win" their third straight series against a quality opponent. Yes, technically the Los Angeles series was a 2-2 split, but considering the Dodgers had only lost four games at home all season prior to the Nats’ trip, we’ll count the split as a win.

They followed that up taking two of three from the Mets, who have faltered of late but are still talented enough to be heard from in the National League East this season.

And now, after bouncing back from last night’s tough 14-6 loss, the Nats have earned an opportunity to grab another series win Sunday night. Of course, they’ll need a strong start from Jeremy Hellickson, which is less likely than it was Friday with Scherzer or Saturday with Strasburg.

Eventually, if the Nationals want to make any real noise, they will need an elongated winning streak. They’ve yet to win more than two consecutive games at any point this season, and have already experienced three losing streaks longer than that.

The talent is there, especially as much of the team gets healthy, and the schedule is finally lightening up. Nats fans are tired of hearing it, but this may finally be the successful stretch they’ve been waiting for. At the very least, the opportunity is there.

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