Nationals

WR Deion Branch returns to Patriots - again

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WR Deion Branch returns to Patriots - again

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) One week into his second round of unemployment this season, Deion Branch had just picked his daughter up at school when she wondered why he had so much free time.

He broke the news to 7-year-old D'Ahni.

``She said, `Dad, what happened? Why aren't you playing?''' the New England Patriots wide receiver said Thursday. ``I said, `Baby, daddy can't play right now. I don't have a job.' And she said, `aw, you'll get one.' And I said, `I know, baby.'''

It's almost as if she had sat in during her father's conversation with coach Bill Belichick.

Perhaps Belichick told him he'd return at some point?

``I'll keep that between us,'' Branch said with a smile and a laugh, one day after re-signing.

Branch was released on Nov. 17 and missed the past four games. But the nameplate at his locker, ``Deion Branch 84,'' remained - just as it did for the first two games of the season after he was cut shortly before it began. He was back for Game 3.

Standing before the locker where a family photo was displayed on the top shelf and football gloves hung from a bar, the 11-year veteran said he wants to retire as a Patriot. He said he'll do whatever the team needs from him, starting Sunday night when the Patriots (10-3), winners of seven straight, host the San Francisco 49ers (9-3-1) in a meeting of Super Bowl contenders.

It's been nearly seven years since Branch was named MVP of the Super Bowl after catching 11 passes in a 24-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

``It was a long time ago,'' he said, ``but that stuff is in the past. It's behind us. I think we all need to be grateful, be thankful just to play the game that we play. I'm thankful. I seize every moment that I get. I'm just glad to be back.''

The Patriots drafted him in 2002 and he led them with 78 catches, 998 yards receiving and five touchdown catches in 2005. But he was involved in a contract dispute and traded to the Seattle Seahawks after the first game in 2006. He remained there until being traded back to New England after the fourth game in 2010. He had 35 catches for the Patriots that year and 51 last year.

The Patriots let him go again, this time as a free agent on March 13. But 17 days later he was back, signing a one-year contract. Before his latest release, Branch was bothered by a hamstring injury. He did rehabilitation and said he feels OK now. But would he have been re-signed if wide receiver Donte' Stallworth hadn't gone on injured reserve this week?

``I don't know,'' he said. ``Everything happens for a reason and with guys that are patient, stuff happens for them. I'm a patient guy.''

The Patriots signed Stallworth after wide receiver Julian Edelman went on injured reserve Dec. 4. Belichick might have brought Branch back even if Stallworth were healthy. But he was hurt on a 63-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady, his only catch in his only game of the season.

Now he's the one rehabbing.

``There's no rush, so I want to make sure that I get it back right,'' Stallworth said, standing near a removable boot on the floor of his locker stall.

Stallworth knows the drill, of course. He also has been back and forth with the Patriots several times. He caught 46 passes for the 2007 team that was 18-0 before losing the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. Then he signed as a free agent with the Cleveland Browns for 2008 and was suspended for the 2009 season after a car he was driving struck and killed a pedestrian in South Florida that March. Stallworth spent 24 days in jail for a DUI manslaughter conviction.

He played for Baltimore in 2010 and Washington in 2011 and signed with the Patriots last March. But they released him on Aug. 27, just four days before Branch was cut.

``He's one of my guys,'' Branch said. ``We came in the draft class together.''

On Thursday, Branch returned to work as if, it almost seemed, he had never left.

``Nothing's changed,'' he said. ``All the guys just walked past my locker like nothing ever happened, so I didn't get any hugs, just `Hey, how you doing? What's up?'''

With or without Branch, the Patriots have kept winning throughout the past decade.

``This is where I want to be. This is where I want to retire,'' he said. ``So that kind of makes everything a lot easier.''

Especially now that he has a shot at another championship, as long as the Patriots keep him.

``That's what I hope,'' he said.

Surely, D'Ahni hopes the same thing.

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Will Juan Soto follow the same path as Mookie Betts?

Will Juan Soto follow the same path as Mookie Betts?

The gasps came again in New York on Wednesday, this time when Juan Soto ripped his hands in and then through a slider which meandered up and inside. The resulting fly ball went 466 feet to right field, confusing camera operators and announcers alike. Nationals play-by-play man Bob Carpenter, calling road games from Nationals Park, wasn’t quite sure where the ball went or landed because it left camera view. The Mets’ broadcasting crew had a better view in Citi Field. Ron Darling uttered a precise summary while the ball traveled: “Whoa.”

Soto hit a 463-foot home run two days earlier which drew similar awe. Darling said then he had never seen a ball hit to that part of Citi Field -- dead center beyond the iconic rising apple. And, what Soto is doing overall is rarely seen. He’s hit two of the five longest home runs in Citi Field since 2015 (Nos. 3 and 5, respectively) in three days. He tied Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Robinson with 60 home runs before turning 22 years old thanks to the two he hit Wednesday night. Only four players -- Mel Ott, Tony Conigliaro, Eddie Matthews and Ronald Acuña Jr. -- have more before that age. Soto turns 22 on Oct. 25. He is being shorted 109 games this season because of the abbreviated schedule and his late start in it. Yet, he’s still chasing down history.

The short season makes comparison points for his future fluid. However, he is running steady with the early days of one player in particular: Mookie Betts. The far-away question for the Nationals is whether their paths when no longer under team control will go the same.

First, to now. Soto’s first home run Wednesday prompted a response from the official NASA Twitter account when it was asked to locate the launch to right field (“We'll look for it when we get back to the Moon in 2024. Cool?”). But, there was a detail attached to his second home run which may be more telling of his actual ability.

Left-handed Mets reliever Chasen Shreve was able to get Soto to rollover a fastball away for a double play in the third inning. Left-handed pitchers typically try for this precise outcome from Soto by pitching him outside. He often foils it by not taking the bait and instead taking a walk or pushing the ball the other way. Against Shreve, Soto left his principles: he swung at a pitch outside of the strike zone and did so with more of a hook swing than one designed to drive the ball somewhere between left-center field and right-center field. Stay through the middle and good things will happen. It’s a mantra for him. He vacated the idea, then pulled his helmet off at first base and bounced it off the ground following the double play.

He faced another left-handed pitcher in his next at-bat. Justin Wilson tried the same approach as Shreve. He was throwing away, but not far enough. A fastball caught the outside portion of the plate. Soto had cleared his head, drove through the pitch, and hit an opposite-field home run. That, more than distance, shows mental genius at 21 years old.

“He makes in-game adjustments better than any young hitter I’ve ever seen,” Davey Martinez said.

RELATED: SOTO BLASTS LONGEST HOME RUN OF HIS CAREER AGAIN

Now, to the future, via the past. Betts came up as a 21-year-old in Boston. Soto is 21. Betts played half a season at that age, moved to 19th in American League MVP voting the following year, then put his name among the elite his third season when he finished second in MVP voting. He also won a Gold Glove and went to the All-Star Game. Betts pulled together a 9.5 bWAR season in 2016 as a 23-year-old outfielder.

Soto finished second to Acuña Jr. in National League Rookie of the Year voting in his first season. He ascended to ninth in NL MVP voting as a 20-year-old via a 4.6 bWAR season. His current OPS is 1.444. It won’t last. And, this is not a full season to chase Betts’ MVP-runner-up numbers. It does indicate further ascension.

It is also another year of Soto’s service-time clock. The Nationals hold team control of Soto until 2025. Next year he will again make a pittance relative to his peers, when he receives a slight raise from the $629,400 he is making this year. The following year, 2022, he can start to cash in  via arbitration. His salary will progressively climb year after year from there -- with several chances to set a record for arbitration pay should his play be maintained.

The rub arrives in 2025. Soto can become a free agent that year. So can Victor Robles. And, Soto is represented by Scott Boras, who is loathe to do anything other than enter free agency with his clients.

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So, the Nationals will eventually be faced with a similar decision the Boston Red Sox needed to make with Betts: can they afford their star? If not, should he be traded?

Boston was in a bind. It dumped current cash (David Price) and future cash (Betts) in exchange for three prospects. In essence, it was an organizational reboot.

The Nationals don’t tend to operate that way. They have not been forced to rebuild since the initial buildup from franchise newbie to contender was completed. They also do not want to exceed the Competitive Balance Tax whenever possible, pick singular spots for big contracts and are yet to approach Soto about an extension. Needing to choose between him and Robles complicates the process further.

So, for now, maybe it’s best to watch the mammoth homers, listen to out-of-town announcers react with shock, then giggle at tweets from NASA. Four more years of Soto in Washington are guaranteed. Nothing beyond that is.

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Three home runs, Rio Ruiz flip, power Orioles to series victory and sweep opportunity vs. Phillies

Three home runs, Rio Ruiz flip, power Orioles to series victory and sweep opportunity vs. Phillies

With two outs in the eight inning and the Phillies threatening to tie the score, Andrew McCutchen hit a sharp ground ball to the left side of the infield. 

Orioles third baseman Rio Ruiz dove to his left, corralled the ball, and as he was falling, flipped a backhand shovel that rolled to second base just in time for the final out of the inning. It was one of the Orioles' best plays, on offense or defense, all season long. 

The standout defensive play kept the Orioles ahead 5-4, a score they’d win by, in their second straight win over the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. It was the team's second-straight series win.

“That was a huge play,” Chance Sisco said. “It was crazy. Just going into the hole, obviously, is a tough play. And then I don’t know what happened, he stumbled a little bit and fell to the ground. I don’t know what it takes just to get that ball out of his glove. Just a great play.”

Ruiz’s defensive play assuredly prevented a run, and with a bullpen that had to work big innings, that play’s significance cannot be overstated.

“He’s just reading the ball really well, his feet are great, he’s just playing outstanding defense at third base,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “That play that he made in the hole, that was game-saving and really won us the game.”

Ruiz had a good night at the plate as well, as he hit a solo home run — as did Anthony Santander and Sisco, to lead the way offensively for the red-hot Orioles.

RELATED: HOW SOON IS TOO SOON FOR THE O'S TO START THINKING ABOUT THE DEADLINE?

After falling down 3-1, they rallied to tie the game in the fourth inning then took the lead in the fifth. An insurance run, by way of Sisco’s home run, gave the Orioles a two-run lead entering the eighth inning. 

Then, they held on — aided by Ruiz’s absurd defensive play — to push their record to 9-7 with a chance for a sweep over the Phillies on Thursday.

Through 16 games of the 2020 season, the Orioles have already surpassed some people’s expectations of what figured to be a year without any notable or exciting games. 

Now, they’re just riding the wave.

“It seems like good teams have different guys on different nights,” Hyde said. “And right now, that’s what we have. We had some big hits tonight. Chance Sisco, Smitty. Middle relief is what won us the game, to me. We pitched well and we got enough runs to hold on.”

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