Memorial Day is the first official turn of the Major League Baseball season–most teams have played at least one-fourth of their season by now and streaky weeks become extended trends.  While the game is often a mosaic of trends in both directions, the Nationals have dominated since the calendar turned.  The team’s 16-5 mark is the best in the Majors this month (although they did win their last three games of April)…and they’ve passed the early rabbit New York Mets (consecutive 1-0 shutouts over the first weekend setting the trend).  How much of a cushion will the Nats create before they cool down?

Cutting down on the K’s– one reason for the upswing in offense has been the decline in strikeouts.  The Nats struck out the 2nd most in the Majors last month, while in May the team’s whiffed the 11th fewest times in the bigs.  A top of the order with contact guys Denard Span and Yunel Escobar gives the meat of the lineup more opportunities…and it’s paid off.

Bullpen Boost– the Nationals relievers rank 8th in ERA this year…and they’ve gotten help from veterans (Drew Storen’s 14 saves lead the NL) and rookies (Matt Grace is 2-0 this month after making his big league debut five weeks ago).  Grace’s path to the majors was nerve-wracking:  he was called up from AAA Syracuse and saw his flight get delayed twice–arriving at the ballpark less than an hour before gametime.  Now that Casey Janssen’s healthy, a strong pen gets a little mightier.

Hero of the Week– Duh.  Bryce Harper has owned this month (.386, 11HR and 26RBI) and last week was no exception.  Sunday’s opposite field hit that brought home an insurance run in a one-run game wasn’t as majestic as one of his bombs, but just as much of a game-changer (let the record show he scored on the next at-bat).  His patience at the plate has paid off;  Harper is one of two players with more walks than strikeouts this month (Dan Uggla being the other) and his 41 RBI lead the big leagues.

Zero of the Week– Stephen Strasburg is 1-3 with a 10.20 ERA this month, with Saturday’s shelling by Philadelphia sending everyone scrambling wondering what might be wrong.  He’s reached the 5th inning just once in May…and his ills have been pinpointed as “misalignment” underneath his right shoulder as well as an ankle injury that’s causing Strasburg to alter his throwing motion.  When healthy, the righthander is a 15-game winner.  He doesn’t appear to be there now– and getting  #37 in gear for the long haul will be key.

Game to Watch–  it’s not official yet, but doing rotational math would likely place Max Scherzer (5-3, 1.67 ERA) on the mound at Wrigley Field Wednesday against Jon Lester.  Two guys who proved their mettle in the American League each enjoying strong starts in new locations.  The Cubs also boast a manager that resembles Barry Goldwater in Joe Maddon.  Even if he double switches for no apparent reason, in your heart you know he’s right.

Game to Avoid– May 31st the Nationals visit Cincinnati.  The Reds are in a tailspin with eight straight losses and boast a manager that would make Tommy Lasorda rethink what he thought about Dave Kingman’s performance.  Their rotation is already somewhat shorthanded with Homer Bailey done for the year.  And it’s the end of May.  After the last few weeks, are we really ready to say goodbye to this month?

Summer came later this year for the winter residents of Verizon Center…for the first time ever the Wizards and Capitals advanced to the second round of their respective playoffs.  Sadly the confidence of sweeping Toronto and the buzz of a seventh game triumph over the Islanders washed away with each team losing three straight games en route to similar summer vacations.  Plenty of progress made on each front– but exits that while aren’t unexpected (both lost to the conference’s top seed) still keep the teams in a familiar place.  Not even in position to get in position for a possible title.  The Capitals haven’t been to a conference final since 1998–despite more than a few chances with a multiple MVP winner.  The Wizards–let’s go back to 1979 when the Bullets were last in the NBA’s Final Four.  That was the year that Magic and Bird met in the NCAA’s Final Four–a demarcation line dividing pro hoops Jurassic Era from the “Birmagijordan Era” (apologies for an unwieldy mashup) that powered the league’s ascendance over a 20 year span (for those scoring at home…I guess the “modern” era of Duncan/Lebron is in its latter stages, I just need to come up with an equally bad title).  It’s been a while since either team had a chance to play for a title–what needs to be addressed as each reloads for a run?

 

The Wizards saw a 2-1 lead (thanks to Paul Pierce’s last-second basket) evaporate despite the late-game heroics of Paul Pierce:  yes, the truth is he missed a game-tying three at the end of Game 4–but his three put the club ahead briefly in Game 5 and his game-tying 3 was waved off in Game 6. Fans not only have those what-ifs to deal with, but the absence of John Wall for three games with 5 non-displaced fractures in his left wrist and hand will have the faithful thinking they could have swept the Hawks (fans are fun that way).  Their 46 wins were the most since the 1978-79 title season.  Can they build on that or will this be like previous nucleus peaks of 2005 (45 wins and a sweep by Miami in the 2nd round), 1997 (44 victories and a sweep by Chicago in the 1st round) or 1987 (sadly, 42 wins and a sweep by Detroit was as good as it got in the 80’s)?  Wizards’ needs include a producer inside (Nene was negligible in the postseason) and a second unit sparkplug (Otto Porter showed flashes in the postseason, but was always better when playing with the starters).  Kevin Seraphin picked a great time to let everybody know he becomes a free agent– his 13 points and 8 rebounds was the one frontcourt bright spot in the Game 6 loss (although Nene notched 11 rebounds, the Brazilian Big Man, Paul Pierce and food-poisoned Marcin Gortat shot 4-18).  Other players hitting the free agent market are Drew Gooden (who’s been a nice veteran presence on this club), Rasual Butler (who played in just 2 playoff games) and Will Bynum (who notched 19 points in 27 minutes against the Hawks in the playoffs).  Paul Pierce and Garrett Temple have player options;  while the 37-year old Pierce suffers from excessive mileage and might just decide to call it a career…you’d hope they’d find a way to bring #34 back.  Temple was hurt late in the season–and his money might be better spent elsewhere.  On the bright side, Andray Blatche’s amnestied contract finally clears the books this summer.

 

The Capitals didn’t necessary collapse in their Eastern Conference Semifinal Series with the Rangers–but it’s tough to ignore a blown late lead in Game 5 followed by sluggish start in Game 6.  The Game 6 implosion–although they rallied to make it a one-goal game–is what concerns me.  It was at home.  There was a chance to advance and they coughed up early and late first period goals.  Say what you will about the overtime losses in Games 5 and 7–but the one that still stings is the Mother’s Day defeat.  Year one under Barry Trotz saw a return to the playoffs…and another 50-goal season for Alex Ovechkin and another 60-assist season for Nicklas Backstrom.  Not to mention iron-man goaltender Braden Holtby (Glenn Hall, watch your back).  As always, it feels like the Caps are closer than the Wiz but there are still a few roadblocks on the highway to the Cup Finals.  Can they find a front-line scorer to compliment Ovechkin and Backstrom?  Only Spinal Tap drummers had similar shelf lives this winter on that line.  Will they get a solid second-line center to maximize the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky?  Do they even try to re-sign Mike Green?  It’s been six years since the defenseman’s offensive numbers peaked with 31 goals and 42 assists.  How do they address in-season acquisitions with expiring contracts like Curtis Glencross  and Tim Gleason?  Other unrestricted free agents include Eric Fehr, Jay Beagle and Joel Ward.  We’ll learn this summer if they were simply holdovers from the previous regime or guys Trotz wants in his dressing room.  Kuznetsov, Marcus Johannson and Braden Holtby are restricted free agents this summer.  Keeping #70 in DC is priority #1.

 

 

The NFL Draft is the logical midpoint of the offseason–almost 3 months after the Super Bowl and roughtly 3 months before the start of Training Camp.  Three days of speculation, prognostication and teams saying they got the players they wanted while analysts criticize selections.  Originally this was a football oasis to whet one’s appetite for the upcoming season–now it’s merely part of a “must focus” slate that includes the combine, free agency, ota’s and other minicamps.  When I started following the NFL I couldn’t wait for the draft;  now that I’ve been covering it for 20 years I can’t wait for the NFL Draft to be done.  

A New Era– Scot McCloughan makes his first major architectural impact with the Skins.  While running the San Francisco 49ers (as VP Player Personnel and then General Manager) McCloughan had four drafts…with solid results.

2005– First overall selection Alex Smith eventually made a Pro Bowl…although hindsight places Aaron Rodgers ahead of the former franchise QB.  Frank Gore has over 11,000 career yards rushing.  Offensive linemen David Baas and Adam Snyder made over 80 starts in the league.  Even tight end Billy Bajema (7th round) played in 120 NFL games.

2006– Tight end Vernon Davis has made a pair of Pro Bowls.  Defensive end  Manny Lawson became a five-year starter.  Fifth rounder Parys Haralson (DE-Tennessee) started for 6 years in the league and sixth rounder Delanie Walker (WR-Central Missouri St) has caught 123 passes in the last 2 seasons (problem is, both were with the Titans after notching 123 career catches his first seven years).

2007– Linebacker Patrick Willis has been voted All-Pro 5 times while making the Pro Bowl 7 times.  Tackle Joe Staley’s made 5 Pro Bowls in his 8 year career.  Defensive backs Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown have become starters…with Goldson nabbing All-Pro honors before signing with Tampa Bay (he’s with the Redskins now).

2008–  Not his best work.  First rounder Kentwan Balmer (DT-North Carolina) played in just 46 games.  Second rounder Chilo Rachal (G-USC)  was a starter in the league for only one season.  Reggie Smith (DB-Oklahoma), Cody Wallace (C-Texas A&M) and Larry Grant (LB-Ohio St) failed to play 50 games with the Niners.  Josh Morgan (WR-Virginia Tech) arguably enjoyed his best season in Washington.

Cause for Confidence– the building blocks to a Super Bowl team were acquired during that stretch.  For a defense that gave up the fourth post points–McCloughan has a track record identifying and bringing in performers on that side of the ball.

Cause for Concern– he whiffs on wide receivers.  Rasheed Marshall, Brandon Williams, Michael Robinson and Jason Hill each made minimal impact. That’s not a need for this team– so one should feel okay.  Unless WR Amari Cooper falls to them at #5.

Skins Needs–  where to begin after losing 25 games over the last two years?

Offensive Line– the unit allowed the second most sacks in the NFL.  Stanford tackle Andrus Peat and Iowa guard Brandon Scherff grade in the top ten overall.

Rush Lineman– the Skins D was tied for 21st in sacks in 2014. Florida linebacker Dante Fowler Jr and USC defensive end Leonard Williams are options.

Defensive Backfield– the team allowed the highest passer rating in the NFL last fall.  Three corners are notable:  Michigan State’s TraeWaynes, Washington’s Marcus Peters and Wake Forest’s Kevin Johnson all grade in the 11-18 range, depending on which anaylyst you listen to.  They could be factors if the Skins trade down.

Until tomorrow– and the second/third rounds.

So much for the doom and gloom column.  It was written last night when the Nationals carved out an 8-run crater…en route to what should have been a seventh straight loss.  They had a minor leaguer starting in place of their 210 million dollar man because of an injury sustained during an at-bat.  The team’s best player from 2014 was languishing in AA Harrisburg.  All the Nats had to do was lay down and take this one begrudgingly.  They would have been 7-14 (on pace for 54-108)…and winless over the last week.  Thanks for nothing, Dan Uggla.

Was last night’s 13-12 comeback an isolated incident or the start of something special?  The team still has the most errors in the majors (23 in 21 games) and these aren’t harmless miscues.  The Nats goofs have led to 23 unearned runs…most in the big leagues as well. The lineup has been spotty (5th most strikeouts, 21st with runners in scoring position).  And the perceived rotation to die for?  A 5-9 composite record with the 15th best ERA in the majors (4.01) and the 4th highest batting average against (.286).  Healthwise, the rotation (Scherzer’s April 28th start pushed back 3 days) and bullpen (Craig Stammen done for the year) have taken their lumps while the lineup isn’t even in Plan B mode (backup IF Escobar out with a cleated glove hand).  At what point do the alarms begin to sound?

The major league season is often about market correction.  This weekend the Nationals face the NL East leading New York Mets in a four game series…a team that owns the best record in the Majors thanks to a solid opening series where they took two of three in DC from the preseason favorites.  No time like the present to climb out of the division cellar– but first they have a chance to win a series for the second time all year in Atlanta.  How much momentum can they generate from last night’s rally?

The Major League Baseball season is a marathon…not a sprint.  Actually, it’s more of a soap opera.  For those unfamiliar with the dinosaur that was daytime drama (Ryan’s Hope, Another World, Guiding Light, etc.), the beauty of following a soap opera (outside of being able to communicate effectively with your 80-something great-aunt on plot points) is that you don’t really need to be locked in to the show to follow it.  Every day there are narrative breadcrumbs…and things don’t really change if you miss an episode or two.  Stefano DiMera remains evil incarnate.  The Josh and Reva storyline will always have exhausting twists and turns.  And most of the good characters continue to be appallingly stupid.  But for those who watch every day, there are subtle rewards.  Character turns.  Minor scenes that might just foreshadow major changes in the future.  Or–it’s just filler until sweeps brings out the big storylines.

Two weeks into the season–barely a snapshot–the Nationals are off to a 6-7 start.  While nobody’s panicking or looking at postseason possibilities (Mets fans, your magic number is now 149!), there are certainly trends to look at.

 

Causes for Confidence– a lineup that woke up after a slow first week (36 runs in 6 games after scoring 17 in their first 7 outings).  Ian Desmond’s hot start (.314 batting average, 8 runs scored and 5 RBI).    The return of Denard Span to the lineup.  A pitching staff that ranks 6th in staff ERA (2.97) and is tied for 2nd in quality starts (9–with a 5th best 6.1 innings per start).

Causes for Concern– the team leads the majors with 14 errors.  A lineup that ranks second in strikeouts (110).  Anthony Rendon remains in the land of limbo:  the third baseman is hitting, running and taking grounders at the spring training facility–but there’s not timetable for his return to DC.  Speaking of injuries, bullpen bulldog Craig Stammen’s surgery subtracts a major force from the relief corps.

 

Heroes of Last Week– Bryce Harper scored 8 runs while homering twice and driving in 5.  Max Scherzer struck out 9 over 8 innings in his lone start.

This Week’s Foes– St. Louis (8-3) leads the National League Central while Miami (3-10) owns the second worst record in the NL.

Game to Watch– Thursday at Nats Park, Max Scherzer pitches against Michael Wacha (2-0, 1.35 ERA–and let’s not forget his near no-hitter of the Nats in 2013).  One nice way to finish a homestand.

Game to Skip– Saturday in Miami, Stephen Strasburg pitches against Tom Koehler (6.75 ERA in 2014).  The 4:10 first pitch comes just as the afternoon heat gets its second wind.  Seats will be available.

Heading into Maryland’s National Semifinal game with UConn, one felt that it was possible for the Terps to beat the Huskies–but the path to victory resembled bringing Apollo 13 back from space.  We were talking about a 40-point checklist-and if one item was amiss, Tom Hanks was going to burn up in the atmosphere or float away into space (one would also have accepted a “Back to School” reference where Thornton Mellon faced a 1-question exam–in 29 parts).  The Terps actually took an 8-7 lead and were playing a one-possession game (down 22-19) against the Huskies with 9 minutes left in the first half…until the checklist began to toll against coach Brenda Frese’s team that resulted in an 81-58 loss.

Sunday’s Keys—

1-Keep Brionna Jones active inside and out of foul trouble– the sophomore sat most of the first half with two personal fouls.  Minus their low post meal ticket (she picked up foul #2 with 16:04 left and the score tied at 10), the Terps shot 6 of 14 and turned the ball over 5 times over the next 11 minutes.  UConn went on a 24-13 run to take the lead for good.

2-Rebounds and Turnovers– the Terps were outrebounded 35-28 and committed 13 turnovers (8 in the first half). One cannot give a team like UConn extra shots and/or possessions.  Breanna Stewart & Morgan Tuck outrebounded the Terps starting bigs 17-6.  Ouch…

3-Transition Team– the fast break never got in gear against a very quick UConn team that gave the Terps very few chances to run for easy baskets.  Facing a halfcourt Huskies defense, their size disadvantage was amplified.

4-Boost off the Bench– Brene Moseley shined in a reserve role…notching 12 points and 4 assists in 21 minutes.   Unfortunately, the Terps needed another monster effort or two from their subs– especially with Jones in foul trouble and the Huskies handcuffing senior Laurin Mincy (1-5 shooting, 6 turnovers).

 

Senior Sayonara– sad to see Mincy not have her best game on her final night playing for the Terps…but what a career for the guard from Newark, NJ.  Despite suffering two torn ACL’s (wiping out her senior year of high school and most of her junior season at Maryland), Laurin scored 1,379 career points and provided the necesary leadership with a very young team this past winter (3 starters were sophomores).  Best wishes to Laurin–as it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to cover her since she walked on Campus in 2010.

 

Next Year–  the bar has always been there.  It’s UConn (and Notre Dame to a lesser degreee).  How does an elite program like Maryland scale the “super-ultra-premium-elite” wall?  It’s tough for a program that’s made two straight Final Fours and just wrapped up an unbeaten conference season to say to itself in the mirror, “we need to get even better”.  It’s a challenge for a squad with three returning All-Big Ten players to the starting lineup to remark, “we have deficiencies that need to be addressed”.  To get to UConn’s level, the Terps need athletic size inside and more consistent shooting on the perimeter.  Can those needs be met with the players returning this fall?  Unless either of the 5-star recruits Kiah Gillespie and Brianna Fraser rock the world from day one on campus, it’ll have to be.  The road to Indianapolis begins today…

Despite the National Semifinal game pitting Maryland against UConn being a showdown of #1 seeds, the Huskies are the overwhelming favorite.  Can you blame conventional wisdom?  The two-time defending National Champions have won 35 straight games while posting victories in the NCAA Tournament by 56, 36, 51 and 21 points.  The Huskies are 3-0 against the Terps over the last three seasons–winning on home, neutral (as neutral as Bridgeport, CT can be) and road courts by an average of 18 points per game.  They boast a matchup nightmare in National Player of the Year Breanna Stewart (18 points and 8 rebounds per game leads the Huskies–and she’s second on the team in assists, blocks and steals).  Coach Geno Auriemma’s bench also boasts players who could start for most of the other teams in the tournament.  Prepare to pay Pat Riley the residuals for printing “Threepeat” paraphernalia.

Or–Maryland makes the miraculous happen.  They shock the world like Notre Dame did in 2011 when the Fighting Irish upended then 36-1 UConn.  They extend the season two more days like the 2006 Maryland team did when they beat a North Carolina squad that only three weeks previously topped the Terps for the ACC Championship.  They turn the college basketball world upside down– or given their status as one of the top four seeds, a few degrees off its normal true north.

 

How do the Terps go from the dream to a reality of an upset?

Start Strong– the Terps began last year’s Final Four game against Notre Dame slowly–and it cost them.  They fell behind early in NCAA games against Princeton and Tennessee before pulling away.  They can ill afford having to play catchup against the Huskies…who showed in their Regional Finals win over Dayton the ability to hit that next gear (going on a 15-3 run to start the second half after trailing 44-43 at the half).

 

Win the Battle of the Boards– Maryland ranks 8th in Division I in rebounding margin; UConn is #2 behind George Washington.  Limiting the Huskies (who shoot 54%) to just one shot is necessary for survival.

 

Get Brionna Jones Going-– the sophomore center’s hit 20 of 31 shots in the NCAA Tournament (64.5%).  Her success in the low post will in theory will open up shots for Lexie Brown and Laurin Mincy on the perimeter in the halfcourt offense.

 

Temper the Turnovers– the Huskies also rank second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.76).  Maryland’s 40th.  It’s tough enough trying to make shots against UConn, but if they can’t even get quality shots–it’ll be a long night.

 

Transition, Transition, Transition– Maryland can run better than most teams in the country…and against a team like UConn it’s imperative to get easy baskets whenever possible.

 

Defend the Undefendable– Breanna Stewart can kill opponents in so many ways.  The 6-foot-4 forward shoots 54% from the field and 32% from 3-point range while being able to pass out of switches and double-teams effectively (119 assists ranks second on team).  In theory, Malina Howard will be assigned the task of containing Stewart.  But the junior can put the ball on the floor effectively as well-meaning multiple Terps will draw the assignment of stopping this offensive monster.  Dayton had some success (Stewart shot 8 for 18) but that left the door open to Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Morgan Tuck (the two combined to score 50 against the Flyers).  A herculean defensive effort against Stewart and her teammates won’t assure victory, but not having one will guarantee defeat.

 

Backups must Stand Up– Brene Moseley, Tierney Pfirman, Kristen Confroy and Kiara Leslie have all contributed in reserve roles this winter–and each has had a standout moment or two during the tournament run.  At least three need to have outstanding efforts against the Huskies.  There can’t be a drop-off from starters to reserves–or UConn’s depth will prove to be the difference.

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