Wildcats soaring after win over USC


Wildcats soaring after win over USC

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) The Rich Rodriguez desert project, by most accounts, is ahead of schedule.

Despite a thin roster and a brutal schedule, Rodriguez has led Arizona to five wins, the most recent over a top-10 opponent, putting the program on the cusp of bowl eligibility in its first season under the new coach.

The Wildcats weren't supposed to be this good this soon, but Rodriguez had an inkling they might have some resiliency when he and the coaching staff pushed them during spring practice.

``We had a new coaching staff and were teaching a new system, and just tested them a little bit mentally to see whether they would respond or go in a shell,'' Rodriguez said. ``We were hard on them about all the things you're supposed to teach and develop and to see how they react. I saw that early in the spring that these guys do want to get better and they're trying to take to the coaching and system. I saw that in the spring and see that now in the fall.''

This first season under Rodriguez was supposed to be a foundation-setter with a sharp learning curve.

The transition to a new coach often takes time and it figured to take a little longer with Rodriguez's non-stop, no-huddle offense and 3-3-5 defense, schemes that were drastically different from what the Wildcats had been running.

Arizona's players weren't in the best of shape when Rodriguez took over, either, so the coaches had to spend extra time working on conditioning to keep up with the go-all-the-time style.

From the start of his tenure in the desert, Rodriguez tried to temper expectations, particularly when he looked at the lack of depth on his roster. Sure, he wanted to win right away, like all coaches would, but building a program takes time, sometimes a few years.

The Wildcats decided not to wait for the building process.

Charging ahead with a nearly unstoppable offense and a scrappy defense, Arizona opened the season with three straight wins to return to the AP Top 25 for the first time since November 2010.

The Wildcats faced a gauntlet of ranked team to open the Pac-12 season, losing to Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford. Arizona had a chance to win two of those, though, losing to the Beavers by three and the Cardinal in overtime.

Beaten up and worn down, the Wildcats recuperated during their bye week and bounced back with resounding 52-17 win over Washington, a team that had been ranked earlier in the season.

They followed it up with easily the biggest win so far under Rodriguez, outlasting No. 10 Southern California 39-33 in an offensive shootout last Saturday in Tucson.

The win improved Arizona to 5-3 overall, 2-3 in the Pac-12 and moved them back into the rankings at No. 24. The Wildcats also debuted in the BCS standings at No. 22 this week.

``I do think it makes us more relevant,'' Rodriguez said of beating USC. ``It should. It doesn't make us a top 10 team - we've lost three games - but it hopefully gives our guys confidence. Hopefully, it makes recruits sit up and notice.''

It's certainly been easy to notice what the Wildcats have done on offense.

Snapping the ball almost as soon as the officials place it down, Arizona has left opponents breathless, putting up more yards than all but three teams in the country, averaging 553 per game.

Fifth-year senior Matt Scott, once brushed aside by predecessor Nick Foles, has been dynamic in leading the Wildcats with his arm and legs, ranking second nationally with 386 total yards per game.

Arizona also has developed a solid run game behind hard-running sophomore Ka'Deem Carey and its defense has done its best to fight through a lack of depth a numerous positions.

The Wildcats also have confidence, particularly after beating USC, and a schedule that gets a little easier after that brutal stretch.

Arizona faces UCLA in Los Angeles on Saturday, then has Colorado, Utah and rival Arizona State to close out the season. The Wildcats should at least have a chance at winning all four of those and, who knows, have a shot at winning the Pac-12 South to earn a spot in the conference championship game.

``Our goal is to build the best program in America,'' Rodriguez said. ``We've got a long way to go, but the process has started.''

And they've done it lot faster than anyone expected.

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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.