July 25, 2014

Washington Wizards Game 1 Recap: Wiz come back to beat Bulls on road

Behind 24 points from Nene and some timely veteran presence from backup point guard Andre Miller, the Washington Wizards came back from a 13-point third quarter deficit to beat the Chicago Bulls in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals matchup 102-93.

The Wizards outscored Chicago 30-18 in the fourth quarter.

Nene was a force all game, dominating in the paint and drilling medium range jumpers with equal ease. He grabbed eight boards and handed out three assists to lead the Wizards in every sense of the word.

Miller was outstanding in a reserve role. He entered in the third quarter while the Wizards were facing some of their deepest deficits and jump-started the comeback, slashing through the lane for a couple of easy layups and completely shutting down Bulls PG D.J. Augustine. Miller finished with 10 points in 13 minutes.

Trevor Ariza added 18 points and John Wall chipped in with 16. Wall was just 4-of-14 from the floor and Bradley Beal, who finished with 13 points, went 3-of-11. Marcin Gortat has 13 rebounds to go with 15 points.

Augustine and Kirk Hinrichs finished with 16 points apiece to pace Chicago.

The Wizards, ranked 25th in the league in free throw shooting, went to the line 35 times and made 26 but made all 12 of their fourth-quarter attempts. They were 12-for-19 in the first half.

Game 2 is Tuesday in Chicago at 9:35 pm ET.

MYSTICS: Washington Mystics Playoff Tickets on Sale

Washington Mystics Press Release Logo 2013Washington, D.C. – Tickets for the Washington Mystics’ first round playoff game are currently on sale at www.washingtonmystics.com or by calling 1-877-DC-HOOP-1. Under the leadership of Head Coach Mike Thibault, the Mystics have returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 season. The date and time for the first round game is still to be determined.

The Mystics have two games left which will determine seeding for the conference semifinals. Currently, the team is in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Washington will face the Connecticut Sun this Friday at 7:00 p.m. and will close out the regular season against the New York Liberty on Sunday at 4:00 p.m. Both games will take place at Verizon Center.

NATS/P-NATS: Potomac Nationals Announce Starting Rotation for Playoffs

Potomac Press Release Banner logo

The Potomac Nationals announce their starting pitching rotation for the upcoming best-of-three 2013 Carolina League Northern Division Playoff Round against the Lynchburg Hillcats (Atlanta Braves) to be hosted at Pfitzner Stadium beginning with Game One on Wednesday, September 4th at 7:05pm:

*Game One (9/4): LHP Sammy Solis (2-1, 3.43)

*Game Two (9/5): RHP Blake Schwartz (11-4, 2.65)

*Game Three (9/6) [if necessary]: LHP Matt Purke (5-3, 4.43)

The winner of the Carolina League’s Northern Division Series receives a berth to the best-of-five 2013 Mills Cup Championship Series to face the pennant winner of the Southern Division. Per Carolina League rules on odd years, Potomac will host the first two games of the Championship Series on Saturday, September 7th and Sunday, September 8th should they qualify by winning the Division Series.

Washington Nationals have work to do in second half

The Washington Nationals were on every prognosticator’s pre-season short list of World Series contenders. No less an authority on the team than its manager, Davey Johnson, proclaimed this season — his last as a manager in the Major Leagues — as “World Series or Bust.” His words. But through the first 96 games of this season, the Nats have hardly looked like a championship caliber club.

Testament to that is their record: a pedestrian one game over .500 at 48-47, six games behind the Atlanta Braves in the N.L. East and five games off the pace for a wild card spot behind the Cincinnati Reds. Their only consistency has been inconsistency. Wallowing in mediocrity thus far, their longest winning streak was five games; longest losing streak was four, twice.

Here’s the kicker: they are outplaying their run differential by two games. Things could (should) actually be worse.

As expected, their pitching, especially their starters, have led the way. The Nats are fifth in the league in fewest runs allowed per game, fifth in lowest ERA, first in fewest walks allowed, fifth in strikeouts per nine innings and second in K/BB rate.

It’s in the other two areas where the Nationals weaknesses are being exposed. According to most metrics, the Nats defense is below-average-to-poor this season. They are tied with the Dodgers for the most errors committed, third from the worst fielding percentage, and sixth-worst in Baseball-Reference.com’s Defensive Efficiency, which takes into account fielding and pitching statistics.

As for hitting, the Nationals are, simply, atrocious.

Their cumulative slash line of .241/.301/.385 is “good” for 13th, 14th and 12th in the National League. They are, not surprisingly, next-to-last in runs scored per game, above only the quad-A Marlins.

Their struggles at the plate are evident up and down the lineup. Denard Span, traded for over the off-season to be the everyday leadoff hitting center fielder, is hitting .260/.317/.355 overall and .143/.208/.163 against left-handers.

Span’s problems have prompted GM Mike Rizzo to trade for Scott Hairston, a right-handed batter, to give Span the day off against tough lefties. Manager Davey Johnson took matters into his own hands Sunday, the last game before the break, when he dropped Span into the seventh spot in the lineup and moved Bryce Harper into the leadoff spot.

Everyone associated with the team would prefer seeing Harper in a more run-producing spot in the lineup and not hitting after the pitcher’s spot two or three times a night, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Ian Desmond and Jayson Werth are performing pretty much as expected, but after that, it’s a laundry list of disappointment.

Ryan Zimmerman is on pace for just 20 home runs. Adam LaRoche is hitting .184/.242/.322 against left-handers. Danny Espinosa was so bad for so long he was placed on the D.L., then demoted, and replaced by a rookie who was forced to switch positions and learn how to place second base in the big leagues.

In fact, Anthony Rendon (.301/.352/.460) qualifies as the only Nats hitter exceeding expectations at this point.

And the bench has been an unmitigated disaster area.

The only solace Nats fans can take with them into the All-Star break is the knowledge that traditionally, many of the Nats hitters have been better second half of the season performers.

We’ve seen the offense get marginally better with the return to health of Harper, Werth and Ramos, and the promotion of Rendon. During a recent stretch, the team scored more than 8 runs in five out of eight games, all wins. Then, a 2-5 trip through Philly and Miami brought back all the offensive woes the team has experienced all season long.

There aren’t any quick fixes either. Rizzo has his hands tied to find legitimate help for the batting order. All the guys that are in the lineup are players the Nats counted on to be part of a championship unit. Replacing any of them will be extremely difficult. We saw in the first half how long the Nats were willing to allow Espinosa to fight out of his problems.

The Nats traded an important asset for Span to be the leadoff hitter for the next two years. They chose LaRoche over Michael Morse and signed him to a two-year deal to hold down first base. Zimmerman is the face of the franchise and supposed to be entering the prime of his career. Werth and Desmond are playing at the peak of their abilities at this stage in their career, warts and all. Wilson Ramos is just coming back from injury. Rendon has fewer than 250 big league plate appearances.

You just can’t replace these guys.

If Rizzo wants to make a roster change, it could be for another starting pitcher. Ross Detwiler has struggled with back issues again this season. Dan Haren has been horrible up until his last two starts. Taylor Jordan will run out of innings pretty quickly in the second half. If Detwiler doesn’t return to health, Rizzo will have to decide whether to turn to an in-house option like Ross Ohlendorf or Nathan Karns, or go outside the organization to make an expensive acquisition.

Another place Rizzo could turn is to bolster the bench. Hairston was a start, but Chad Tracy (.157/.195/.289) and Roger Bernadina (187/.252/.288) haven’t been tearing the cover off the ball either. Tyler Moore could rediscover his stroke in Syracuse, but the right-handed outfield bat is filled by the veteran Hairston.

The bottom line is that the Nats players on the roster have to hit better in the second half. They need to get better against left-handed pitching. They need to make up for the lack of on-base skills with more power. The changes need to come from within. All these players, except for Harper and Rendon, have track records and for the most part, they aren’t living up to their career standards.

The Braves aren’t out of reach, and they have mounting injury problems of their own. The Nats start the second half with 20 out of their next 25 games at home, where they play at a 99-win pace. They absolutely must take advantage of the vagaries of the schedule and close the gap over the next month.

If the Nats aren’t a game or two within first place by Aug. 15, they’ll be facing an uphill battle, as 20 of 26 games between then and Sept. 12 are on the road, where they’ve played to a 68-win pace so far this season.

Oh, and it would help if the Nats actually beat the Braves a few times in the nine games they have left to play against them this season. So far, they’re 3-7 against the division leader, with 20 runs scored and 40 runs against.

This Nats team is still the same one that most folks had in spring training to win the division and represent the N.L. in the World Series. They are as healthy as they’ve been all season long. They have two extended homestands to open the second half. Many of the players are notorious second-half hitters. It’s time for this team to live up to the hype.

Washington Capitals End-of-Season Roundtable, Part II: Biggest Disappointment?

With the conclusion of Washington Capitals season, too early yet again, it’s time for appreciation, evaluation and critique. For the next seven days the Caps staff at District Sports Page, and a few friends, will be taking an in-depth look at what went right, what could be better, suggest some changes and grade out the team position-by-position.

Our panel: Dave Nichols, Editor-in-Chief of DSP; Abram Fox, Caps Team Editor of DSP; Katie Brown, Caps Beat Writer for DSP; Sky Kerstein, 106.7 The Fan and DSP contributor; Ted Starkey, SBNation.com and DSP contributor, Adam Vingan, NBCWashington.com; and Harry Hawkings, RocktheRed.net.

PART I: What was the Capitals’ biggest accomplishment this season?

PART II: What was your biggest disappointment about the Caps this season?

DAVE: I’m not that disappointed about the Caps losing a playoff series to a team that had one fewer point than them in the regular season, even if they hosted Game 7 and came out as flat as a pancake. What I was disappointed about was the way they handled it afterward. Yes, my biggest disappointment all season was the whining they did about the officiating after they were bounced.

I understand the frustration of poor officiating. I do. But suggesting a conspiracy by not suggesting it is bush league stuff. And McPhee backing Ovechkin’s comments with his own the next day to me was very disheartening. I’m a big McPhee fan, but corroborating Ovi’s Soviet-era conspiracy suggestions about the league wanting to do the Caps in was really tough to listen to.

You know how you handle a loss in the playoffs? You own up to it. “We didn’t play well/hard enough.” “They were the better team.” “We have to figure out how to be better.”  Otherwise, you’re just losing respect in the eyes of the fellow players and administrators across the league, and inviting more scorn in the eyes of the Canadian media — something they don’t have to be talked into.

There’s a pattern of disbelief and lack of accountability from the Caps players – and organization – following these playoff ousters in the Ovechkin Era. At some point, you are what your record says you are. These Caps aren’t good enough to get past the first round or two. Part of the problem is they don’t, won’t or can’t own up to it and won’t advance further until they acknowledge that they, themselves, are the problem. Not hot goalies. Not no-talent shot blockers. Not poor officiating. Themselves.

ABRAM: Blowing the 2-0 series lead over the Rangers to lose in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2010. Since that should be a unanimous decision, second place is the team’s inability to find a healthy top six left winger for the second line, even after betting the farm on Martin Erat filling that role.

KATIE: Obviously, the team’s early exit from the playoffs for yet another year. Though the team has been able to make the postseason for the last six seasons, the Capitals perennially fail to live up to their potential in the playoffs. It would have  been encouraging to see a team that began the season at literally the bottom of the rankings in the NHL, rallied to win a division title a make the playoffs actually make a serious postseason run. However improbable that may have been, there is no doubt in my mind that the Capitals, who have surprised just about everyone this season, would have been able to at least break the first and second-round playoff exit curse they seem to be plagued by. Mike Green said after the Capitals Game 7 loss that all the team needed was “one thing to get them going.” Because sometimes all it takes is one thing to turn a team’s fortunes, to spark a team’s comeback, but the Capitals still have yet to figure that out, and it’s a shame.

SKY: Lack of postseason success, again.

TED: The playoffs were another disappointment for Washington, particularly scoring just 2 goals in the team’s final 3 games en route to a first-round exit. The Capitals came unglued in Games 6 and 7 and were unable to adjust to the Rangers and create sufficient pressure on New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist.

ADAM: For me, the biggest disappointment this season was not necessarily being ousted early from the postseason again, but how the Capitals handled it.

Alex Ovechkin, the potential league MVP, crying conspiracy about the officiating, and then George McPhee backing his captain up by saying that it “sure didn’t feel right.”  I’m surprised that neither man was/has been fined by the NHL.

Yes, the discrepancy in penalties — particularly near the end of the series, in which the Rangers had 11 power plays to the Capitals’ four between Games 5-7 — was apparent, but it only served to distract the Capitals from the task at hand. After losing a pivotal Game 6, instead of shaking things off and focusing on a winner-take-all Game 7 the following evening, all they could talk about was the officiating (and accusing Derek Dorsett of slew-footing Mike Green.

Frankly, even if some of the penalty calls were questionable (and there were some), the Capitals shouldn’t have put themselves into positions to have those calls made against them. Even after the season was over, the team continued to harp on it, using it as an excuse for their latest pratfall. It was hard to listen to.

HARRY: The biggest disappointment to me was the way that management handled the trade deadline.  I didn’t think before or after “the surge” that saw Washington climb back in to playoff contention that they were true contenders for the Stanley Cup, and that they should treat the trade deadline accordingly.  Instead, they went out and traded for Martin Erat in what seemed like an attempt to “win now.”  Erat is a perfectly good player, and no one could have foreseen his injury, but he wasn’t (and isn’t) the player to put the Capitals over the top and he cost George McPhee one of his best prospects.  Now, Washington will likely lose center Mike Ribeiro to free agency and July because of a cap crunch and will once again lack a second-line pivot, despite the presence of some top-six wingers.  Some of the future is gone, all for another first-round exit.

Washington Capitals Game 46 Recap: Caps Clinch Southeast Division Title with 5-3 over Winnipeg

In a crucial late-season game for the Washington Capitals, facing the potential of clinching the Southeast Division or slipping behind the Winnipeg Jets and almost out of playoff position, the Caps put together a playoff-caliber effort in Tuesday night’s 5-3 home victory over the desperate Jets.

Spearheading Washington’s efforts were Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera, Nicklas Backstrom, Mathieu Perreault, and Alexander Ovechkin, who each scored a goal in the victorious effort to sew up the franchise’s fifth division title in six seasons. Braden Holtby made 24 saves in the process of earning his 22nd win of the season. [Read more...]

Griffin injury shouldn’t overshadow Washington Redskins remarkable progess

In the end, Robert Griffin III proved to be mortal after all.

With the Redskins early 14-0 lead evaporated and the compromised quarterback valiantly — but vainly — struggling to lead his team to a comeback in the fourth quarter, Griffin’s injured right knee finally gave out on him.

After a bad shotgun snap, Griffin tried to sharply plant on the knee to chase the fumble — one of the very few times all day he attempted a truly natural play instead of a measured attempt to protect the joint. As everyone saw in the stadium and on countless television replays, the knee simply buckled under the strain of Griffin placing full weight on it and attempting an athletic play.

Face down in the muck of FedEx’s embarrassing turf, Griffin couldn’t even continue to make a play for the ball, which was lying at the Skins five yard line for a Seattle defender to fall on, giving the Seahawks the field position to once and for all end the Redskins day — and season.

Eventually, Griffin made his way off the field under his own power, but his day was done.

Many observers thought Griffin should have been replaced at halftime after an ineffective second quarter, when it became apparent that the Rookie of the Year candidate had re-aggravated his knee injury, devoid of any burst when rushing the ball and simply unable to play his game, which had carried the Redskins to this point of the season.

It’s a fine line when a player insists he can still help his team despite injury. Watching from the stands and at home on television it’s easy to play doctor. On the field, after all the Skins have gone through this season going from 3-6 to winning the division at 10-6, Griffin emerged as the unquestioned leader on this team.

Griffin’s exuberance to continue to play may have affected head coach Mike Shanahan’s decision-making, when all signs on the field indicated Griffin was compromised and his continued play could result in further injury to the franchise player.

“If you can play, you play,” Griffin was quoted in the locker room following the loss.

But adrenaline and pressure sometimes mask the honest truth: Griffin was obviously not the same player after he took a tumble limping to the sidelines on a second down play just before the Redskins second touchdown. It was obvious he’d re-aggravated the injury, and his play afterward was nothing like it was before.

The noticeable limp. The incapacity to plant while throwing. The indecision when he couldn’t tuck the ball and run when pressured. After Griffin limped through the second quarter, unable to play at even a fraction of his Pro Bowl caliber talent, the Shanahans would have been justified in making the switch right there and turning to Kirk Cousins in the second half.

But they did not do that. They stuck with Griffin until he could go no longer. Griffin is the unquestioned leader of the team and sometimes coaches have to ride with their stars, regardless of the circumstances.

After the game, Mike Shanahan reiterated that if the doctors thought that the damage could be elevated by Griffin continuing to play, he’d have lifted him. But he also admitted to being talked into letting Griffin continue by his prized pupil, with Griffin assuring his coach he was playing through pain, not injury.

It was a bitter conclusion to the Redskins first playoff game since 2007. Shanahan’s decision to ride with a compromised Griffin will be dissected until — and probably through — next training camp.

But it shouldn’t overshadow the remarkable second half of this Redskins team, the progression of Griffin and fellow rookie Alfred Morris, the Pro Bowl season from Trent Williams, recovering from his late season suspension last season to become an anchor for this team at left tackle, and the amazing seven-game win streak that gave the Skins their first division title since 1999.

While it may be dark now at FedEx Field and Redskins Park following this loss, there should be many bright days ahead for Robert Griffin III and the rest of this Redskins team.

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief and Washington Nationals Page Editor for District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards. Previously, he wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network and spent four years in commercial radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams.  Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence.  You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP.

Seahawks formidable foe as Washington Redskins try to take next step

Robert Griffin III hands off to Alfred Morris in Redskins 40-32 win over New Orleans Saints in Week 1. (Photo by Brian Murphy)

First, the good news: the Washington Redskins won their last seven games in a row to advance to the NFC Playoffs. Now, the bad news: they advance to face the Seattle Seahawks, the next hottest team in the conference, winners of seven of their last eight games. Add in the fact that the Seahawks knocked the Skins out of the playoffs in both of Washington’s most recent post-season games (2005 & 2007) and that might have some fans of the Burgundy & Gold on edge Sunday evening.

If you’re reading this page, you know all about the Redskins, led by Rookie of the Year candidate Robert Griffin III, Alfred Morris and veteran linebacker London Fletcher. The Skins lead the NFC in rushing yards per game and are second in the conference in points per game (27.2). But the Seahawks are sixth in the conference at 25.8 points per game, so they’re no slouch either. Their secret weapon is quarterback Russell Wilson, a fellow rookie that will certainly garner his share of ROY votes in the off-season.

Wilson is in the mold of RGIII, a gifted athlete with exceptional presence in the pocket. He’s thrown for 26 touchdowns (against just 10 interceptions), while rushing for 489 yards at a 5.2 per carry clip. Wilson is supported by RB Marshawn Lynch, who carried for 1590 yards and 11 touchdowns. On defense, they led the league in fewest points per game, allowing just 15.3 per contest, and ranked fourth in fewest yards allowed. Formidable, indeed.

The even matchup and relative hotness of both squads has many pundits proclaiming the winner of the 4:30 pm matchup as favorite to advance out of the NFC — if they don’t get beaten up too much by their opponent.

This is pretty heady stuff for a team that was 3-6 heading into their bye week and had their head coach declare that he was in evaluation phase the rest of the season.

Mike Shanahan was asked at practice this week if his young team would be affected by nerves heading into the team’s first playoff game since 2007. “It’s been seven games with a do-or-die situation. So I think our mindset has been the same. Great preparation during the week and you’ve got to go get it done on the weekend.”

He’ll ask his rookie quarterback and rookie running back to shoulder the load on offense, as he and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan have all season. “We’ve got a little experience over the last few years with our offense. We’ve been able to put a nucleus of people together and with the addition of [quarterback] Robert [Griffin III] and [running back] Alfred [Morris] who have been able to make some strides.”

While Griffin has received the lion’s share of praise for this offense, Kyle Shanahan has beamed about the production from Morris, especially since the bye week. “For about six weeks in a row, I’ve told him that he needs to have his best game of the year today and I feel that he’s continued to do it. Each game, he’s gotten better. It is rare. It’s a long year, especially for a rookie, and he’s never hit that wall.

“The guy doesn’t seem to get too sore, either. He’s always in practice as soon as we go on Wednesday – takes every rep. We make fun of him because he won’t ever go walk-through tempo either. He’s always full-speed. We can’t get him to slow down. He’s always fresh and he’s very fun to coach.”

Perhaps the biggest matchup on Sunday will be between the Skins receiving corps and the Seahawks big, physical defensive backs. Kyle Shanahan described what made the matchup so difficult. “They’re very good at jamming guys. They’re very physical. They try to beat you up all the way down the field. They compete in the run and the pass game. They have a lot of confidence in them. They play a lot of single safety and they get after it.”

Both Seattle corners, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, had their troubles this season — but not on the field. Browner returns this week after serving a four-game suspension for PED use while Sherman avoided a PED suspension by successfully appealing to the league. Browner had 44 tackles, three picks and three forced fumbles in 12 games. Sherman had a dominant season, even if Pro Bowl voters didn’t see it that way, recording eight interceptions to go along with 64 tackles, one sack and three forced fumbles.

It will be imperative for the Skins wide receivers — especially Pierre Garcon — to give RGIII open targets early to allow Morris the opportunities to find the seams in the Seahawks run defense, which ranked 10th in the league in rushing yards.

The Redskins run to the playoffs — and the play of their two rookies on offense — has re-energized a long-dormant fan base. A playoff win in the duo’s first NFL playoff game might have FedEx in a frenzy Sunday evening. With the Green Bay Packers’ victory over the Minnesota Vikings Saturday, should the Redskins emerge victorious over the Seahawks they’d earn a trip to Atlanta to face a Falcons club that didn’t exactly light the world on fire down the stretch.

Big game, indeed.

Washington Nationals NLDS Game 5 Review: Four-run ninth seals Nats fate in series ending 9-7 loss to Cardinals

How long does it take for unbridled joy and optimism to dissolve into utter disbelief and then despair? A half inning, apparently.

A stunning four-run ninth inning by the defending World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals turned a raucous Nats Park into a mausoleum as quickly as that as the Cardinals came back from two runs down and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in a period of three outs, beating the Washington Nationals 9-7 and winning the best-of-five series, three games to two, to advance to the National League Championship Series.

Nats closer Drew Storen, on the mound for that fateful top of the ninth inning with a two-run lead, got two outs while allowing a runner to reach third base. After that, he threw five pitches when the Cardinals were down to their last strike before elimination. The Cardinals swung at none of those five pitches, taking them all for balls, as Storen first walked Yadier Molina after having him 2-2, then David Freese, whom he had at 1-2. Then, as they had done all series long, the bottom two hitters in the Cardinals order — Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma — did the Nats in. [Read more...]

HEARTBREAK

A stunning four-run ninth inning by the defending Champion St. Louis Cardinals turned a raucous Nats Park into a mausoleum as the Cardinals came back from two runs down and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, beating the Washington Nationals 9-7 and winning the best-of-five series three games to two to advance to the National League Championship Series.

We’ll have a full game story with reaction from manager Davey Johnson and much more at District Sports Page throughout the evening.

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