Nationals Bench is Best in Class

Earlier this week the Nationals lineup against the Angels featured a starting outfield of Howie Kendrick, Adam Lind, and Michael A. Taylor with Wilmer Difo starting at shortstop. This was not due to a 1 p.m. start or the marathon games over the weekend against the Giants. Rather, due to the state of the Nationals disabled list (a loooong list) the team has had to make due with players that are playing out of position or ones that weren’t even on the roster to begin the year. Given the state of the lineup and the shuffling of the defense, the Nationals can be excused for potentially going through a slump or a cold streak. Instead, the backups and bench guys have helped the Nationals go to a season-high 25 games over .500 and a 14+ game lead in the division.

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Photo: USA Today

The long litany of injuries began when Adam Eaton tore his knee at the end of April. That forced Taylor (who was a bad spring away from possibly being released) into the starting lineup where he’s thrived. While he’s still striking out a little too much and missed time himself with an injury, Taylor has earned the trust of Dusty Baker by playing great defense and making consistent contact more than ever before. When Jayson Werth went down at the beginning of June, Brian Goodwin was called up and has been an extra-base hit machine since his call-up, generating 35 extra-base hits in his 74 games. Of course, he now is on the DL with a strained groin that is sure to sideline him for at least a couple of weeks.

On and on the injuries began to pile up, but the Nationals have continued to roll due to the strong performances of the players filling in. After Trea Turner went down, Difo came in and has been a sparkplug atop the lineup after briefly getting benched due to a slow start. Adam Lind has been pinch-hitter and spot-starter extraordinaire filling in for Ryan Zimmerman and in left-field when needed. Even when Bryce Harper went down with a horrific-looking (thankfully not season-ending) knee injury, Kendrick has stepped up and hit 3 home runs in the last 2 games, including a walk-off grand slam to end the weekend marathon Sunday night. Losing Joe Ross and Stephen Strasburg has barely slowed the team down given the strong performances of Edwin Jackson and AJ Cole spot-starting when needed.

With a huge lead in the division that won’t be relinquished, the focus down the stretch will be on getting all the key cogs healthy and ready to roll in time for the postseason. Strasburg is due back on Saturday after a strong rehab start in Potomac earlier this week. Having missed 2 of the 3 division series the Nationals have participated in, the onus will be on Stras to remain healthy and continue dealing down the stretch. Trea Turner and Jayson Werth should soon follow at the end of the month, although Werth’s timetable has continued to shift further and further back. The consensus with Harper’s injury seems to be that he will come back with a week or two left in the season, but he said that he will not return until he’s 100% healthy.

The silver lining in all these injuries? Barring any further injuries, the Nationals will have their strongest bench crew to date heading into the postseason. With professional hitters such as Kendrick and Lind raking and young guys such as Taylor, Goodwin, and Difo getting consistent at-bats, the team will have reliable options in key pinch-hitting opportunities in the postseason. While not planned or expected, the exposure that the backups and rookies have received might give them the confidence in a key spot in October. Combine the strong bench with the best offense in the National League and a bullpen that has been lights-out since the trade deadline, the Nationals could finally have the right ingredients for a deep run in October. If all clicks and the injuries don’t resurface, D.C. could finally host its first League Championship Series game in history.

Redskins Preseason Preview: Green Bay Edition

The Washington Redskins by all means did not have a successful outing when they took the field in Baltimore against the Ravens. The first team offense laid and egg, the defense looked mediocre, and the special teams allowed a good kick return. Hey, that’s what preseason is for! There is no need to come to rash judgements as we, Redskins fans, tend to often do. Week 1 of the preseason is behind us and we look to see what comes in week 2. LP and FP are breaking down their 4 things to watch for, as they do all year on the DTC podcast.

FP’s top 4 to watch for:

  1. Offensive Line vs. the Dom Capers blitz. Dom is known to have very exotic looking blitz packages, and the Redskins offensive line had a really bad outing against the Ravens. Can the Redskins O-Line be the strength we all expected coming into the preseason?
  2. Phil Taylor. I am really high on Phil Taylor, I want to see if he can string together 2 good games. His story intrigues us all and we root for him. Let’s see what he can do against the GB line.
  3. How does Manusky handle the rotation now that Trent Murphy is on IR. The Redskins are slim at OLB with all the injuries. Can Chris Carter, or Lynden Trail step in to fill the void. Are any of the back end of the roster OLB serviceable?
  4. Replacing Sua Cravens. Sua is now out for the rest of preseason, D. Hall has yet to come off PUP, Will Blackmon is still injured as well. Who will step in to fill this void? It looks like Dashazor Everett will get the first crack at it this weekend.

LP’s top 4 to watch for:

  1. Kirk Cousins. I want to reaffirm my confidence in Kirk. I just want to see a decent drive from the first team offense who is likely not going to play much, if at all.
  2. Nico Marley. Nico was one of the only standouts in the Ravens came. Can he come up with another big week? Nico is one of the most energized players on this team. Can he cement a special teams role this yet?
  3. Samaje Perine. Samaje did not live up to expectations in preseason week 1, but it’s preseason. I want to see the Samaje that we were all expecting. I would like to see him running behind some of the first team O-Line and see what he can produce.
  4. Ryan Grant. Jay Gruden gave Ryan Grant more glowing praise during today’s presser. “I think people might be surprised with how many balls he might catch” -Jay Gruden on Ryan Grant. I want to see if Ryan can backup Jay on the field against the first team defense of the Packers.

 

Photo Credit: Redskins.com

 

Redskins preseason preview: What to watch for.

Its finally here. Football is back! Granted it’s just preseason, but it’s still Redskins football! So much has happened this offseason, and so much more still needs to happen.  Thursday will be the DC area’s first taste of football since that bitter end to last season. Week 1 of preseason brings us an early “Battle of the Beltway.” The Ravens may have had a horrible training camp, and honestly who cares. LP and FP are here to preview Game 1 and each give their 4 things to watch for.

                      (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

LP’s take: 

This is the second most important preseason game of the year, after of course the 3rd preseason dress rehearsal. I don’t think we can understate the amount of things that are going to be important to watch here. Sure, the casual fan may watch the first drive, or even the first quarter, but the game goes much deeper and has much more significance than just the starters. Based on Gruden’s Tuesday 1:00pm presser we know that Crowder, Doctson, Reed, Moreau,  Kendal Thompson and Montae Nicholson will not play but there is still plenty to watch for. Here’s what I’ll be watching for:

  1. How much does Breeland play? We all saw Gruden throw Breeland in the dog house just a few days ago. This Thursday we’ll see how much he’s really in the dog house. If the starting defense plays just a series or 2 but Breeland plays a whole quarter or even a whole half, it will be a telling sign of how unconfident they are in him as a starter in 2017. Remember, this is preseason, Value = Less playing time. (If you’re doing your job)
  2. How will the offensive play calling rhythm look? Is Kirk Cousins going to be snapping the ball with under 5 seconds left on the play clock the first series of the first game of preseason? If so this is going to be a long year. We saw Gruden struggle with getting the plays communicated to the then OC (Sean McVay) then to Kirk Cousins in year 1 of the Gruden era. Has Gruden found a more efficient way of doing this? I’d watch for the body language of all 3 quarterbacks, WR’s, and RBs. If they look confused, it’s probably because they are, and the plays aren’t getting communicated fast enough.
  3. Who gets the start at NT? Is it Phil Taylor? Is it Joey Mbu? Is it Matt Ionaddis? With them all healthy I look forward to seeing who is going to take the leap and cement themselves as at least the week 1 starter. It certainly seems like its Phil Taylors job to lose.
  4. Can Nate Sudfeld build upon the limited success in last years’ preseason? As much as we don’t want it, we all know Kirk may be gone in 2018 or 2019, and we know what we have in Colt McCoy. I wonder if Gruden and the coaching staff give Nate Sudfeld a little more playing time with the second unit. This is over the latter which is playing time against defensive players who the majority are unlikely to be on a roster come September 10th or at least have significant roles.

FP’s take: 

Everyone is familiar with the headlines, Scot is no longer the GM, Kirk hasn’t signed a long term deal, Pierre and DeSean are long gone and Bruce Allen is still Bruce Allen. In the most Redskins of ways, they have still managed to get me excited for this season. Doctson and Pryor, Zach Brown and a strong draft have me feeling giddy and hopeful. Here’s what I’ll be watching for:

  1. The secondary – Last year’s defense was horrible. If an opposing offense had a 3rd and 7 or better it was basically a guarantee they’ll convert. LP already hit on Breeland, and you can bet that Norman and Cravens will likely have just 1 series. I want to see Dashaun Phillips, Quinton Dunbar, Kendall Fuller, Josh Holsey and the other young CBs look competent. No missed assignments, no blown coverages, no getting beat.
  2. The inside Linebackers – Zach Brown is a pro-bowler. Mason Foster and Will Compton are slowly growing in this defense. The Redskins won’t show how we’ll be utilizing these guys and rotating them this early, but the thing I want to see is who can recognize offensive formations quickly and truly lead this defense and get everyone in place.
  3. Greg Manusky and staff – Just like the players, this team made a lot of changes for the coaching staff on Defense. Out is Joe Barry and in is Manusky. I want to see aggressive play calling, the right guys in the right place and solid, sound tackling. In my eyes a good DC makes sure fundamentals are intact before building schemes.
  4. Samaje Perine – Again, this is game 1 of the preseason, but the RBs need some good reps. I want to see Perine’s vision and patience. Not known for break away speed and ankle breaking moves, watch to see if Perine has a basic understanding of the lineman’s blocking assignments and hits the hole right. Also watch out for how he does during pass blocking.

Thursday game won’t showcase the stars and the full potential of this team. However if you watch closely and see a hunger, swagger and overall prepared and educated approach to the game, from the depths of this team, this may end up being a better season than many of us expected back in March. Make sure to check in immediately after the game for our reactions, analysis and breakdown of the game.

LET’S GO SKINS! HAIL YEAH!

News & Notes from Dusty Baker’s Pregame Presser

DTC is broadcasting live from a rainy Nationals Park on U.S. Coast Guard Day at Nats Park where the team is returning from a seven day road trip and ready to face the second place Marlins in a 4-game series. Before tonight’s game, we joined Dusty’s presser and got some updates on some injuries and some other tidbits about our ball club, which looks to build on the momentum of a series win in Chicago this past weekend against the Cubs.

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Injuries – In what felt like a never end laundry list of names and issues, no major updates on any of the players on the DL or on assignment for the Nats. Trea Turner will begin hitting soon and testing his swing after hurting his wrist on a hit by pitch several weeks ago. Turner will be moving to West Palm Beach and continuing his rehab at spring training headquarters. Jayson Werth continues to be close to returning but is now focused on running and testing that bad toe/foot and hopes to return very soon. Stephen Strasburg did throw a bullpen session today but no timetable on his return. Meanwhile Michael Taylor continues his rehab assignment and is looking to regain his bat speed after starting 1 for 22 in Syracuse on assignment

Max Scherzer – Dusty confirmed Max Scherzer will be getting the start tonight, 5 days after leaving his last start early with neck spasms. Dusty mentioned there is no cause for concern with Max and that both his arm and his legs feel good, which is a great sign. What wasn’t a great sign was the gesture Max made to Dusty which initiated his removal from his last start. Dusty spoke about the panic in the dugout when your ace gestures that he needs to come out after 1 inning and especially with a guy like Max. Dusty jokingly said he thought he exerted too much energy on his HR trot and that he wanted to go out on a high mark J

Passing of Don Baylor – Dusty’s longest and most emotional response today came when asked about the news of the passing of Don Baylor, a former teammate and friend of Baker. Dusty said that he was supposed to be Hank Aaron to Baylor’s Frank Howard as they both came up in the league together and got drafted together. He then retold the story of how he learned of Baylor’s death today from Baylor’s son and that he wishes he had spent more time calling Baylor back. Dusty ended his presser by stating he had just listened to Tupac’s “Death around the corner” track and believes that’s why it’s so important to be kind and friendly to people because you never know when they’ll be gone.

Stay tuned to DTC for more content prior to first pitch tonight @defeatthecurse on Twitter and @defeatingthecurse on Instagram

Nats Rally Past Cubs in Chicago

In what many pegged as a preview of the National League Division Series, the Nationals and Cubs met in Wrigley for a three game series over the weekend.

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With the Dodgers clearly ahead of the pack in the National League and likely to meet the wild-card game winner, the Cubs and Nats seem to have already been locked in to the series even this early in August. This despite the fact that the Cubs just recently went ahead in the National League Central and maintain only a slim lead over the Brewers and others in the Central. Both teams really beefed up leading up the trade deadline seemingly in preparation to face the other in the playoffs. The Cubs picked up a frontline starter in Jose Quintana from the White Sox and back of the bullpen help in Justin Wilson from the Tigers (with Alex Avila also added into the deal as catching depth behind Wilson Contreras). The Nationals meanwhile, remade their bullpen picking up 3 shutdown relievers to help stabilize their late-game woes and a sneaky good bench piece in Howie Kendrick.

The highly-anticipated matchup quickly fizzled when Dusty Baker announced that Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez would both miss their scheduled starts as Scherzer was recovering from neck spasms while Gio was on paternity leave in anticipation of the birth of his second child. The Cubs had two of their top four starters lined up in Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester sandwiched between John Lackey, who started on Saturday. Given the circumstances, you could forgive the Nationals for dropping the series or even getting swept since the Nationals countered with journeyman Edwin Jackson and rookie Erick Fedde following Tanner Roark’s turn in the rotation. Daniel Murphy crushed two homeruns on Friday afternoon as the Nationals revamped bullpen shut things down after Roark’s solid 6.1 innings of work.

Bryce Harper went deep in the first inning against John Lackey on Saturday, but Edwin Jackson continued his hot and cold pattern by giving up 4 runs in 5 innings and Matt Grace gave up two more in the sixth as the Nats dropped the middle game of the series. Facing Jon Lester on Sunday, Erick Fedde was solid, but unspectacular as the Nationals went into the eighth inning trailing 5-3. The middle of the order then came up and turned the game around loading the bases for Anthony Rendon, who promptly was hit by a pitch and drove in a run. A struggling Matt Wieters came to the plate looking to tie the game or give his team the lead. He did one better, driving the first pitch out to centerfield for a grand slam to give the Nats the lead. Brian Goodwin padded the lead with a solo home run in the ninth and Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle shut things down once again as the Nationals took the series in Wrigley.

So, what did this series really tell us? In actuality, not very much given the state of the Nationals rotation during this series and that the lineup is still without Trea Turner, Jayson Werth, and Michael A. Taylor. The Nationals also faced John Lackey, who will most likely not be a part of the playoff rotation for the Cubbies. With the revamped bullpen looking sharp however, it must be comforting for Nats fans to watch a finally stabilized back of the bullpen. Kendrick also has given the Nats a true 2-hole hitter in front of Harper, Zimmerman, and Murphy until the return of Werth. Kendrick’s flexibility also gives the Nationals a chance to rest as many as 6 regulars down the stretch and a solid backup plan should Werth’s injury continues to linger into the playoffs. What is certain though is that the Nationals and Cubs (should they hold on to their lead in the Central) will provide a memorable division series.