February 14, 2016

Washington Redskins Wild Card Playoff Preview: vs. Green Bay Packers

The fourth-seeded Washington Redskins play host to the fifth-seeded Green Bay Packers in a Wild Card playoff match-up that few would have expected just a month ago. Washington, the NFC East champion, has now won four straight games on their way to a 9-7 record. Green Bay, on the other hand, stumbles in having lost their last two contests, resulting in a 10-6 record.

These two teams have taken very different trajectories this season. Washington has been playing their best ball as of late. After starting out the season at 2-4, fans could see the same old mediocre Redskins team starting to materialize. However, Washington has now gone 7-3 in their final 10 games, with 2 of those losses coming to teams that currently have first-round byes in the playoffs. The Redskins ended up clinching the East in Week 16 and having the luxury of resting key starters last week’s win vs. Dallas. [Read more…]

Washington Redskins to face Green Bay Packers in Wildcard matchup

The Washington Redskins have known for two weeks they would host an NFC Wildcard game. Now we know who they will face.

By virtue of the Minnesota Vikings defeating the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night, the Vikings won the NFC Central North [eds. Old habits die hard.], earning the right to host the Seattle Seahawks in the other wildcard game.

That means the Packers, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, will travel to FedEx Field next Sunday at 4:40 p.m. to face the NFC East Champion Redskins. The game will be broadcast on Fox.

The Packers started the season 6-0, but struggled down the stretch, losing back-to-back games to Arizona and Minnesota with the division on the line. Rodgers was 28 of 44 for 291 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings, but also threw a pick.

Against Arizona the week prior, the Cardinals pasted the Pack, 38-8. Arizona sacked Rodgers eight times and returned two of his fumbles for touchdowns. He was 15 of 28 for just 151 yards with a touchdown and interception.

Running back Eddie Lacy has rushed for 94 yards in the past two weeks combined.

All of this is taken with a grain of salt. The week prior to getting pounded by Arizona, the Packers clinched a playoff spot with a win over Oakland, which was their third in row following wins over Detroit and Dallas, two other non-playoff teams. In fact, the last time Green Bay beat a “good” team was Nov. 11 when they beat the Vikings.

Of course, that win was sandwiched by losses to the Bears and Lions. Oh my.

The Redskins, winners of their last four games and 6-2 at home, have to like the matchup with the slumping Packers, despite the reputation that Rodgers will bring to the game.

The Skins will be hampered by injury in the defensive backfield, as both Dashaun Phillips (cervical stinger) and Kyshoen Jarrett (concussion) left the win over Dallas and did not return.

But Kirk Cousins is peaking at the right time. The signal-caller passed Jay Schroeder to become the franchise all-time single season passing yardage leader on Sunday and completed what has to be argued as one of the finest passing seasons in the franchise’s history –which includes some pretty good quarterbacks through the years.

The Redskins were an afterthought by many in the preseason, and when the organization decided to bench Robert Griffin III during preseason and go with Cousins, once again they were derided as dysfunctional.

Through the first few weeks of the season, Cousins played poorly and the Skins took their lumps. But since the comeback win over Tampa Bay, things have continued to look up for Washington football, and it wouldn’t be a shock if the Redskins could knock off the Packers in the Wildcard round.

Regardless, Redskins fans should savor the division title and home playoff game next week.

This franchise has made itself hard to love over the past decade and a half, but GM Scot McCloughan has started to increase the level of overall talent on the squad and seems to have returned a semblance of competency to the front office, which was once occupied by lackies and yes-men.

Worry about next year later. Enjoy things now. You never know when the next chance for postseason happiness might come.

What we did and did not learn from this year’s playoffs

What we learned:

Clutch matters

In this age of analytics this is a phrase you may hear a lot: “There’s no such thing as clutch.” (For example, you can see that here, here and here).

The math may say it doesn’t exist, but there’s just no mathematical formula for players like Joel Ward or Jonathan Toews. [Read more…]

WASHINGTON NATIONALS NL EAST CHAMPS

The Washington Nationals beat the Atlanta Braves 3-0, clinching the National League East title on Atlanta’s home field.

The Nats take their second division title in three years.

Much more to come later on District Sports Page.

Hagerstown Suns fall in Game 5 to Asheville

Courtesy Hagerstown Suns

HAGERSTOWN, MD – The Hagerstown Suns (2-3, 87-53) closed their 2014 season by falling to the Asheville Tourists (3-2, 89-49) by a final of 4-1 in game five of the best-of-five South Atlantic League Championship Series on Saturday night. It is the second year in a row the Suns have lost in the South Atlantic League Championship Series.

The Tourists wasted no time going ahead on Saturday, as they took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first. Third baseman Ryan McMahon drew a two-out walk, and he advanced to second on a throwing error by RHP Nick Pivetta (0-2). McMahon scored from second on a line drive single to right by 1B Correlle Prime.

The Asheville lead grew to two in the third. With one out DH Raimel Tapia sent a ball out of the park over the center field wall for his first homerun of the postseason, making it 2-0 Tourists. The lead doubled in the fourth thanks to a two-out, two-run double by 2B Zach Osborne, which brought Prime home from second and catcher Jose Briceno home from first. That made it 4-0 Asheville after three and a half innings.

The lead remained at 4-0 until the eighth, when Hagerstown picked up its only run. Center fielder Rafael Bautista reached first on a fielding error by McMahon. Second baseman Wilmer Difo then singled to right, pushing Bautista to third. Bautista scored from third on a groundout to short by LF Narciso Mesa, setting the final score at 4-1.

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.

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