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Winston-Salem faces Valdosta State for D-2 title

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Winston-Salem faces Valdosta State for D-2 title

FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) No. 2 Winston-Salem State has already gone deeper into the playoffs than any other team from the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Now, the Rams are a win away from making history for black college football, too.

They face two-time national champion Valdosta State Saturday hoping to become the first HBCU team to win Division II's football national title.

``That's a huge deal. For our conference, the HBCUs , to have a chance to play for a national championship and be the first one to win one, is a steppingstone,'' Winston-Salem State coach Connell Maynor said. ``It's a great opportunity for us. We're happy to be here carrying the flag for the CIAA and HBCU. It'd be a great thing if we could pull it off Saturday.''

The only other HBCU team to make the championship game, Central State of Ohio, lost 41-21 to North Dakota State in 1983.

Winston-Salem (14-0) is also trying to become just the fifth team to go 15-0.

Standing in the way is a Valdosta State team seeking its first title since 2007, David Dean's debut season as head coach.

Winston-Salem is in its third season since aborting a Division I move for financial reasons. The program's former status is just one more reason for Valdosta State (11-2), which ended the regular season ranked 17th, to keep the underdog mentality that formed with a rough start.

``The fact that they haven't been Division II for very long and they've got a lot of Division I players, that automatically puts us as the underdog,'' Blazers quarterback Cayden Cochran said. ``That's something we welcomed since we were 2-2 and teams kind of wrote us off and fans of other teams kind of wrote us off.

``It kind of helps us, gives us a little extra push to know that there are people in the stands that don't think we can do it.''

Winston-Salem won its last eight regular season games by at least 19 points and had only one tight playoff game, a 21-17 win over Indiana, Pa., in the quarterfinals. Yet Smith, like his Valdosta State counterpart, feels his team does not get enough respect.

``Even though we've played as good as we have, some people still have doubted us,'' said Smith, who has passed for 3,043 yards with 42 touchdowns against nine interceptions. ``That makes us want to come out and play even harder just to prove people wrong.''

He's got several dangerous targets. Jahuann Butler has 1,167 receiving yards, Jameze Massey 1,156 and Jamal Williams757. All three have caught at least 12 touchdown passes.

Winston-Salem is ninth nationally in total offense and Valdosta State 10th.

Winston-Salem's defense and Valdosta State's offense have easily handled big challenges in the playoffs.

The Blazers racked up 525 yards against West Alabama and Division II's No. 5 defense and gained 498 against Minnesota State-Makato, which had the third-rated defense.

The Rams held West Texas A&M's Harlon Hill Trophy finalist Dustin Vaughan to 169 passing yards in a 41-18 semifinals victory.

Valdosta State's Cochran has passed for 2,506 yards with receivers Gerald Ford (1,018) and Seantavious Jones (916) hovering near 1,000 yards. Both have caught 13 touchdown passes.

Winston-Salem counters with a defense allowing just 89 rushing yards a game and ranking eighth in points allowed (16.1 per game).

``They're probably one of the fastest teams that we have faced all year long,'' Valdosta State's Dean said. ``They're tremendously athletic. Their defensive line has very good pass rushers, which can cause us problems as much as we throw the football.''

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Orioles bats nearly non-existent once again in third-straight loss to motivated, reconstructed Marlins

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Orioles bats nearly non-existent once again in third-straight loss to motivated, reconstructed Marlins

At around 10 p.m. Wednesday night, the Orioles finally squeezed out a run, seemingly by divine intervention. 

It happened when a chopper from outfielder Austin Hays bounced off two Marlins infielders and into the outfield which allowed Anthony Santander to score and cut the lead in half. The problem was, it was the Orioles’ first run of the game, third hit of the game and ninth hit of the series. 

The Orioles, up until Hays’ single, had gone 21 ⅔ scoreless innings against a Marlins team that had 18 replacement players from its Opening Day roster due to an outbreak of COVID-19. The Marlins were a team that had to find pitchers that were simply available to throw major league innings, and they retired Orioles batters consistently through the first three games of the series.

Baltimore, operating as the road team at Camden Yards for the second half of a doubleheader, lost their third-straight in a 2-1 loss to the Marlins. The fourth game of the series will be Thursday. 

“I don’t want to take credit away from their guys, I thought they pieced it together fairly nicely out of the pen giving us some different looks,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “I don’t know if we’re trying too hard, or...I’m not what it is, to be honest with you. It’s one of those little funks that we’ve gone through in a couple days.”

Ever since the second game of the season against the Red Sox, the Orioles have swung the bat particularly well, better than most thought they could. But all of those bats went silent after a series sweep of the Rays on Sunday, a series victory that left some with a brief, optimistic scenario that the Orioles could contend for a playoff spot. 

Since that win over the Rays, though, the offense hasn’t just been quiet, it’s been silent. 

The Orioles were shut out Tuesday and in game one of the doubleheader Wednesday in 4-0 and 1-0 losses, respectively. Were it not for Hays’ single, it would’ve been three straight games with a zero on the scoreboard.

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“I can’t really put my finger on it,” Hyde said. “We’re not driving the baseball. I think guys are trying to do too much, carrying too big of a load, instead of trying to get the next guy up instead of trying to win every pitch. We’re having a tough time just getting on base to start a rally and putting good ABs together after it.”

After blazing starts to the year, some of the Orioles’ best hitters have hit a cold streak at the same time against a Marlins team that was cramped in a hotel room for more than a week.

Anthony Santander is just 2-for-10 in the series, Jose Iglesias and Rio Ruiz have been hampered by injuries and Hanser Alberto, after a staggering start to the year, is 0-for-11 in the series. 

“It’s not fun,” Iglesias said. “We just lost two games, but I think we’ve got to move forward. Tomorrow is another day. We’re going to get an opportunity to play the game and come back.”

But while the bats have failed, the pitching has thrived. In that regard, it makes the previous few days that much more infuriating for the Orioles.

In the last three games, the starters have been excellent. John Means, Alex Cobb and Asher Wojciechowski have combined to throw 14 ⅔ innings and have allowed just eight hits, four earned runs and four walks. They’ve struck out 15 batters, too, as both Means and Cobb each allowed just one run in their starts. 

All three pitchers, however, received losses. 

“I don’t have an explanation for it except I really like the way we’re pitching,” Hyde said. “I think our offense will come around. I don’t think we’re going one run in three games continuously. We have proven we can score runs and we can swing the bats against really good pitchers. This series, for whatever reason, we’re not driving the baseball. We’re not grinding out at-bats the way that we did against the teams we played before.”

The Marlins, who are now 5-1, have seemingly released all their pent up energy through the team’s pitching staff. 

The Orioles, who dropped to 5-6 with the three losses, simply haven’t had an answer for a Marlins team that came out of quarantine with a stout pitching staff.

“I’ve been impressed with their pitching, for those guys to be shut down in a hotel and throw the way they’ve been throwing, they’ve done a nice job,” Hyde said. “I don’t think we’ve helped them out, I think we’ve expanded the strike zone, but I think they’ve come out with energy and we haven’t scored any runs.”

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Juan Soto impressed in his first game back but is still working up to full strength

Juan Soto impressed in his first game back but is still working up to full strength

One game into his 2020 season, Juan Soto is already filling up the Nationals’ highlight reel.

The 21-year-old outfielder missed Washington’s first eight games of the season after testing positive for the coronavirus on the morning of the team’s opener. He finally returned to the lineup Wednesday and went 2-for-4 with an RBI double and a diving catch in left field.

“It feels good to be back,” Soto said after the game. “Being back with the team, trying to have fun in the game and everything. It’s amazing being with my team and my teammates and being ready to go.”

Washington didn’t win the game, snapping a three-game winning streak with a 3-1 loss at the hands of the New York Mets. But even though the offense wasn’t clicking, Soto’s presence gave the lineup a much deeper look than it had over the first two weeks of the season. He hit fourth, with second baseman Starlin Castro slotted in front of him and Howie Kendrick hitting fifth as the designated hitter.

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“In his first at-bat, he took a breaking ball and smoked it to left field for a double,” manager Davey Martinez said. “[Then he] took a ball up and in, stayed inside the ball, base hit to right. But he looked good, he really did. Little jumpy, but that’s to be expected his first game back. But he looked good.

“I love writing his name in the lineup hitting fourth. It’s nice. So hopefully we continue to build him up and he gets ready to play and we can put him out there every day. I always say, he’s 21 years old so it doesn’t take him long to get ready, get loose. But we definitely got to keep an eye on him.”

Soto originally was cleared to return practicing Saturday, but the Nationals had the weekend off after their series with the Miami Marlins was postponed because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the Fish’s clubhouse. He participated in simulated games through Monday and was available off the bench Tuesday against the Mets.

Despite his strong performance Wednesday, the Nationals have an off-day Thursday that plays to Soto’s advantage by allowing him to take a day to rest. Martinez said he anticipates Soto being ready to go Friday when the Nationals open up a three-game series with the Baltimore Orioles.

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“I’m going to rest tomorrow because I played nine innings, I don’t play nine innings in a long time,” Soto said. “We’re going to try to rest my legs, try…to keep in shape and try to come ready to Friday.”

Late start or not, Soto doesn’t plan on easing into action. After a scheduled off-day Thursday, the Nationals will have 13 straight days with a game. He said that while he will take advantage of the chance to rest, there will be no breaks once the games begin.

“I just try to play hard,” Soto said. “Every time I’m in the field, it doesn’t matter…if I’m in there, it’s because I’m going to give my 100 percent. If I come to the field and I’m in the lineup, I’m going to give my 100 percent no matter what. And when I’m in the middle of those two lines, I’m ready to give my 100 percent.”

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