Nationals

Vilma practices, his Saints' teammates encouraged

Vilma practices, his Saints' teammates encouraged

METAIRIE, La. (AP) As the Saints began their pre-practice stretch on Wednesday, receiver Lance Moore hopped up, looked over at linebacker Jonathan Vilma, and hollered, ``Glad you're back! We missed you!'' while the entire team offered a round of applause.

``Hello!'' Vilma responded with a smile, still seated on the field, one leg pulled over another.

Vilma then did something he had yet to do in 2012: practice.

And it was obvious the Saints were pulling for him to be ready to play this Sunday in Tampa Bay, which might be his only chance to get back on the field this season if his bounty suspension, currently on appeal, winds up going back into effect in a week or so.

``Vilma continues to fight for what's right and a fair process which I think is extremely justified,'' Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. ``The fact that he was out there practicing today, it just kind of puts a smile on everybody's face knowing what he's been through and having the opportunity to get him back.''

Vilma did not work with the first team, but also did not wear any kind of brace or sleeve on his surgically repaired left knee, which has been another obstacle to his return.

``He's back,'' safety Malcolm Jenkins said. ``He's doing a bunch of extra stuff, too, to make sure he's ready as far as conditioning and things like that. But he's ready to play. I know he's been champing at the bit and this is his opportunity this week and I know he'll be ready.''

Vilma had several offseason procedures done on his knee, which had slowed him last season and sidelined him five games. He even traveled to Germany to see a specialist in platelet rich plasma therapy, a relatively new blood-spinning technique also used by Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.

Vilma's initial season-long suspension was handed down in May and went into effect in July after his initial appeal was rejected. That suspension lasted through training camp before being vacated by a three-member appeal panel that instructed Commissioner Roger Goodell to start the disciplinary process again and clarify his reasons for suspending Vilma and three others - Saints defensive end Will Smith, free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita - in connection with New Orleans' cash-for-hits bounty pool.

Because of his rehabilitation, Vilma was placed on the Saints' physically unable to perform list when his initial suspension was lifted, a move that saved the Saints a roster spot and also prevented Vilma from practicing or playing during the first six weeks of the regular season.

The suspensions were reissued last week and promptly appealed by all four players, with appeal hearings set for next Tuesday at NFL headquarters in New York. Vilma remains suspended for the season and Smith for four games. Hargrove's was reduced from eight to seven games and Fujita from three to one.

Vilma did not make himself available for comment while the locker room at Saints headquarters was opened to reporters on Wednesday afternoon. However, his teammates had plenty to say about how he looked and what it would mean to get him back on the field.

``Having him on the sideline when he wasn't suited up was one thing,'' linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. ``Now, suited up, ready to go, maybe get some plays here and there ... It's definitely good to have him out there. He's always been that energy on the defensive side of the ball that we needed.''

For the past four seasons, Vilma was a defensive captain and starting middle linebacker, making all the defensive calls on the field. Now the Saints have a new defense under first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Vilma has now practiced in the scheme only once, although he has been numerous defensive meetings.

``It's Jonathan Vilma. He's one of best football players in the National Football League. He's an instinctive player and he's been in all the meetings for the entire time he's been on PUP, allowing him to see what's going on, understand the schemes,'' interim head coach Aaron Kromer said. ``All we can do as see as it goes on, but I would expect Jon would come back quickly because he's Jon Vilma. ... He does look healthy.''

Kromer and Spagnuolo have said they can find a spot for Vilma, even if Curtis Lofton remains at starting middle linebacker. Lofton said he also is confident he and Vilma will have good chemistry on the field.

``You can't have too many great football players out on the football field,'' Lofton said. ``You can't have too many leaders and too many communicators on the field at once.

``He's been the leader of the defense,'' Lofton added. ``Having him back out there, seeing his face, seeing him in pads knowing everything he's been through and is going through and worked so hard to come back on the football field, it adds extra energy. Guys are excited and I'm excited to play with him.''

Notes: Three players missed practice on Wednesday, including two linebackers, David Hawthorne (right hamstring) and Scott Shanle (illness). TE Jimmy Graham (right ankle) also was out. ... CB Jabari Greer (right groin) and RG Jahri Evans (left big toe) were limited.

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Which Washington Nationals might show up on 2019 MLB awards ballots?

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USA TODAY Sports

Which Washington Nationals might show up on 2019 MLB awards ballots?

Despite their struggles in 2018, the Washington Nationals nearly came away with two major awards this season. Juan Soto, despite having the most impressive offensive season for a teenager in baseball history, finished a distant second behind Ronald Acuna in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Max Scherzer, despite becoming just the 17th pitcher ever to strike out 300 batters in a single season, fell to Jacob deGrom in the NL Cy Young race.  

So, who’s most likely to take home some hardware a year from now? Of course, any National could theoretically win a Gold Glove or a Silver Slugger, but let’s focus on the big ones, which player is most likely to win, and who his biggest competition will likely be. We’ll go from most likely to the biggest longshots.

1. Max Scherzer, NL Cy Young

He may have fallen short this season, but Scherzer is pretty clearly still the National with the best chance of winning a major award next season. Sure, he’s already 34, and it’s not easy to predict when a pitcher will break down, but this is an arm that has defied conventional ideas of “wearing down.”

Scherzer’s biggest competition is the reigning winner deGrom, a potentially healthy Clayton Kershaw, a potentially healthy Noah Syndergaard, and Aaron Nola. Beyond them, a potentially healthy Stephen Strasburg could also find himself in the conversation. Noticing a pattern here? With so many injury-prone aces, health will almost certainly play a major role in this race.

Scherzer has won two of the last three Cy Youngs, and he undeniably pitched at a Cy Young-level in 2018 as well. The question is who else steps up in 2019 to challenge him?

2. Victor Robles, NL Rookie of the Year

Rookie of the Year awards are tricky. At the top of ballots, you often see the most highly-touted prospects in baseball. Acuna, Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, Jose Fernandez, and Bryce Harper all won in the National League in recent years. But you also have surprise rookies who come out of nowhere, either because it wasn’t expected that they’d be ready so soon (like Soto) or because they weren’t seen as top talents before their respective breakouts (like Aaron Judge).

Still, Robles’ pedigree and the potential opening in the outfield with Harper in free agency means the stars could be aligning for an awards push. Robles is one of the most talented prospects in baseball, and he’s proven himself enough in the minors to show he belongs. The only thing missing has been the opportunity, which is now right in front of him.

His competition likely will come down to a trio of young shortstops: Fernando Tatis, Jr., Nick Senzel, and Brendan Rodgers. Tatis is the most talented, but is younger and coming off an injury last season. Rodgers doesn’t have that one flashy elite skill to catch the eyes of voters. Senzel, however, already looks like a .300 hitter, and on a surprisingly decent Reds offense will probably be Robles’ biggest competitor.

3. Anthony Rendon, NL Most Valuable Player

No offense to Rendon, who has led the Nats in Wins Above Replacement in each of the past two seasons, but this is probably the choice that gives me the least confidence. He’s really, really good, but is he MVP-worthy?

The nice part about playing the National League is that there’s no Mike Trout or Mookie Betts to dominate MVP voting year in and year out. The downside is that means there are as many as a dozen hitters in any given season to compete with, plus pitchers like Kershaw and Scherzer who are strong enough to take votes away as well. Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, and Buster Posey are all stalwarts who will grab the attention of voters, not to mention the inevitable youngster who will pop up unexpectedly.

Rendon is well-rounded, underrated, and a truly valuable star worth keeping in Washington for many years to come, but his talents aren’t flashy enough to draw the attention of voters, there’s no strong narrative surrounding him winning, and while he plays on a good team, he’s not generally looked at as the most important piece on the roster. This one probably isn’t happening.

4. Dave Martinez, NL Manager of the Year

Those fans who weren’t exactly thrilled with Martinez’s performance in the dugout during Year 1 are probably going to laugh at the prospect of him winning Manager of the Year, but allow me to make the case.

Manager of the Year is never about the actual best manager in baseball. Frankly, there are far too many unknowns for writers to ever really identify who the best manager is. And managers of elite teams rarely get the credit they deserve. The guys who win are typically skippers of teams expected to be bad entering the season but end up making a surprise run to the playoffs. Think the Braves and A’s in 2018.

If the Nats bounce back and return to the playoffs in 2019, national writers will notice. Plus, if Harper leaves this offseason, the narrative will be there for Martinez to receive a ton of credit. It may not be accurate, but with this particular award, perception matters more than reality.

The Nats making the postseason again is a very realistic scenario, and if it happens, Martinez should at least get national consideration for the award.

5. Bryce Harper, NL Most Valuable Player (as a National)

Ahhhh, the fun one. Or, maybe, the tricky one.

Obviously, if Harper was guaranteed to return to the Nationals, he’d be much higher on this list, probably the top choice. Based on his pedigree and name brand, he’d at least be the clear favorite from the Nats roster to win MVP. And if the choice was simply that he’d win with any franchise, then he’d be higher as well, but knowing (or rather, not knowing) what we know right now? That makes this a tough one to place.

While I’d probably guess that he’s not coming back to Washington (it’s hard to imagine the team going too much higher than their already-rejected $300 million offer), it’s still definitely a possibility. And, if he does, we’ve already seen what an MVP season from Harper looks like. Strange as it is to believe, he’s only just now entering the age at which most MLB players hit their primes. The best may be yet to come for Bryce, so it comes down to whether or not you think he’s coming back.

If yes? This is the new number one. If not? Well, that’s why he’s a longshot.

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It's Friday and the Ravens still haven't announced who their starting quarterback is for Sunday

It's Friday and the Ravens still haven't announced who their starting quarterback is for Sunday

The suspense is killing us.

Will it be Lamar Jackson, Robert Griffin III or actually Joe Flacco starting for the Baltimore Ravens Sunday in the most important game of the season, in Week 11 against the Cincinnati Bengals?

Well, it's almost time for happy hour on a Friday and we still don't have a definite answer.

Flacco, who is nursing a right hip injury, did not practice this week and was listed as doubtful on the team's Friday injury report.

But the good news is that Jackson, who missed Thursday's practice with an illness, was a full participant Friday. When asked whether Jackson missing the most crucial day of practice is concerning, head coach John Harbaugh had us scratching our heads.

“It’s not ideal,” Harbaugh said. “Was it part of the plan? Apparently, it was.”

Jackson admitted that the possibility of his first NFL start Sunday would bring on a few butterflies but that once the ball was snapped,"it's on."

"You have to have trust with your guys," Jackson said Wednesday. "You have to have them believing in you to put points on the board. So, that’ll be my job if I’m out there.”

And in the latest version of 'The NFL is wild,' Robert Griffin III was the only Ravens quarterback who participated in a full week of practice.

The 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year hasn't started an NFL game since January 1, 2017, but has stayed up to speed in case a moment like this occurred. 

"That's my job. That's why they brought me here," Griffin III said Wednesday. "They brought me here to be a pro. They brought me here to help this team if need be. I try to help the defense every week on scout team and then do those [reps], and if my number's called I'll be able to go out there and lead this team."

Prior to this week, Flacco had only been on the team's injury report eight times and had missed only three regular-season practices. In 11 years, Flacco has missed just six games, starting the last 41. 

Guard/tackle James Hurst (back) has been ruled out for the fourth week as well as Tim Williams (ankle).

Cornerback Tavon Young (ankle), tackle Ronnie Stanley (ankle) and safety Tony Jefferson (thigh) are listed as questionable. 

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