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Golf’s first major is more than merely a tournament.  The Masters is an event and a tradition.  Past often meets present and future in the same grouping on a Thursday, and if we’re lucky sometimes they collide on a Sunday afternoon.  Even with alterations and “Tiger-proofing” over the years, the course at Augusta National remains the same one that has hosted this event since 1934 (although they reversed the front and back nines after the inaugural tournament).  From the green jacket worn by the champion to the pimento and cheese sandwiches (reasonably priced) available for purchase, this tournament evokes tradition.  Instead of fans, there are “patrons”. Instead of the rough there is a “second cut”.  And Augusta Nationals’ year-by-year contract with CBS creates a relationship between broadcaster and event unlike any other.

Recently, tradition has taken a back seat: the 2020 tournament was moved to November due to the COVID-19 pandemic while the final round in 2019 was moved earlier due to thunderstorms in the forecast (the leaders teed off at 9:20 a.m. instead of the customary 2:40 p.m.).  And with Tiger Woods recovering from his car accident, the game’s biggest name will not be on the scene to give the TV ratings a spike in 2021.  So forgive us if we’re a little starving for tradition this year.  But barring the unforeseen (the unforeseen has had a way of being seen over the last year) there will be a winner Sunday evening who will wear the green jacket, perhaps for the first time.  Let’s rate this April’s field:

The favorites (all odds are courtesy of cbssports.com)-the big names that will dominate the headlines over the next few days, especially if they get off to subpar starts and miss the cut:

Dustin Johnson (9-1 odds)- the defending champ posted a record 20-under par score en route to his first green jacket last November. He’s also finished in the top ten the last five times he’s played at Augusta National.  Repeat winners aren’t as rare as in other majors in the modern (1960’s onward) era, but only Jack Nicklaus (1965-66), Nick Faldo (1989-90) and Tiger Woods (2001-02) have been able to pull off the feat.

Jordan Spieth (10-1)- the 2015 champ enters this week fresh off a win at the Valero Texas Open, but only Sandy Lyle (1988) and Phil Mickelson (2006) have won the Masters after winning a tournament the previous weekend.  Spieth has also tailed off in recent years, finishing 21st in 2019 and 46th in 2020.

Justin Thomas (10-1)- the 2017 PGA Championship winner has improved each year he’s competed at this tournament, from missing the cut in 2014 to tying for 39th, 22nd, 17th and then 12th before last November’s fourth place finish.  He also won the Players Championship last month.

Bryson DeChambeau (11-1)- the 2020 US Open champion has yet to finish in the top 20 at Augusta National: his best finish was in 2016 when he tied for 21st and was the Low Amateur.  He’s the proverbial bull in the china shop, and the course at Augusta National neuters most bulls.

John Rahm (12-1)- the Spaniard is only 26 but already has three top ten finishes at Augusta National, tying for seventh last fall after placing ninth and fourth the previous two years. 

Rory McIlroy (14-1)- it’s not as exhausting as Phil Mickelson’s drive to win the US Open, but the no-longer-young four-time major champ is still searching for his first green jacket.  A rough Thursday torpedoed his 2020 hopes but Rory bounced back to tie for fifth. He actually has three top five finishes and six top tens in his career.

Second Tier Contenders:  if they contend you’ll say, “I should have taken him in my pool…”

Xander Schauffele (22-1) tied for second in 2019 and the 27-year old has a top ten finish in all four majors. He’s currently fourth on the PGA money list entering this week behind Thomas, DeChambeau & Johnson. Each of those men has won at least one major.

Patrick Cantlay (22-1) was the Low Amateur in 2012. Since turning pro he’s played in the tournament three times, missing the cut in 2018, tying for ninth in 2019, and tying for 17th in 2020. He’s currently sixth on the money list.

Brooks Koepka (25-1) has been money in major tournaments with four of his eight tour wins coming at the US Open or PGA Championship.  His best finish was tying for second in 2019 and Koepka tied for seventh last November.  But he also had knee surgery last month after withdrawing from the Players’ Championship.

Patrick Reed 28-1) won the Masters in 2018 and tied for tenth last year. Other than that he’s had a rough go at Augusta National: two missed cuts and one top-30 finish.

On the Fringe-guys that will make you say, “Man I didn’t see that happening…”

Collin Morikawa (30-1) took the PGA Championship last year before tying for 44th in his Masters debut.  The 24-year old will likely find his second shot at the course a little more forgiving. 

Tony Finau (33-1) is perhaps most famous for dislocating his ankle during the par-3 tournament three years ago (he’d wind up tying for tenth), but the 31-year old tied for fifth in 2019.

Daniel Berger (33-1) has the buzz of February’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am victory, but is making his first appearance at Augusta National since a 32nd place finish in 2018.

Viktor Hovland (33-1) was the Low Amateur (tying for 32nd) in 2019 and became the first Norwegian to win a PGA Tour event last year at the Puerto Rico Open. 

Webb Simpson (35-1) has finished in the top ten each of the last two years after posting one top-20 finish in his first six tries (with three missed cuts). 

Sentimental Choices-their last best chance may have been a few years ago, but that won’t stop us from rooting for them.

Lee Westwood (33-1) has finished second twice while posting six top tens in his career, but the window of opportunity may be closing on the 47-year old.  Westwood is ninth on the PGA earnings list and may be the sneaky pick to be involved Sunday afternoon.

Tommy Fleetwood (45-1) is often confused for Lee Westwood by those who follow the game just close enough to be dangerous (why is everybody looking at me?).  Both are English and neither has won a major, but Fleetwood is 17 years younger and has never won on this side of the Atlantic.

Sergio Garcia (45-1) remains the favorite of those who play the Smirnoff Ice commercial on YouTube (Did you say…Sergio?).  The 2017 champion winner has one other top five finish and has missed the cut since winning the green jacket (Garcia did not play last November).

Bubba Watson (50-to-1) will deliver a spike to Waffle House stock with a victory, but the 42-year old has just one top ten finish in a major since his 2014 triumph. He placed 57th in last fall’s Masters.

Phil Mickelson (100-to-1) has already begun his Champions Tour career, but not many have enjoyed a better second act in the majors (all five of his titles coming after the age of 33) than lefty.  If a fifty-something would get it done on this course in this tournament, I’d put my money on him.

He’s still playing?

Winning the Masters gives one a lifetime exemption from having to qualify in future years (example: other major winners get a five-year exemption, while those who won on the tour over the last year or are in the top 50 of the world rankings are invited).  Enter the likes of former champs Jose Maria Olazabal, Vijay Singh, Sandy Lyle, Larry Mize and Ian Woosnam who are long-shots…to make the cut.  While they’re not “ceremonial” players, for the most part they’re rarely in the mix (with the exception of Jack Nicklaus tying for sixth at age 58 in 1998).  Last year two-time winner Bernhard Langer became the oldest to make the cut at the age of 63, but the usual order of business is watching these guys record consecutive 70’s before taking their bows Friday afternoon.  Even so, it’s great to see them on the stage of their greatest golf triumph.  Past, present, and future reconvene Thursday.

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The Washington Nationals regular season was postponed twice last week. First we learned Thursday morning that Opening Day would be shelved and then we learned Friday that the weekend games with the New York Mets would be postponed, all due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the Nats’ roster. When those players who tested positive as well as those who were deemed close contact will be available, we don’t know at this time. Monday’s game was postponed as well, meaning they’ll start (in theory) Tuesday afternoon with Monday’s game moved to Wednesday for a doubleheader that will feature a pair of seven-inning affairs. On the bright side, having games against a division foe postponed isn’t the worst that could have happened as they’ll play the Mets and Braves again early and often this season so a double-header can be sprinkled into the schedule here and there. But until they actually get back on the field, I’ll still be uncomfortably anxious. Or is it anxiously uncomfortable?

Digesting the Division- the lack of games between the Nats and Mets makes for an interesting recap here. Philadelphia is 3-0 after their sweep of Atlanta while Miami is in fourth place after losing two of three to Tampa Bay (gotta love interleague play running all season). Nothing quite like starting the season tied for second.

Break up the Birds!- Baltimore began the season 3-0 thanks to their sweep of Boston at Fenway Park where they outscored the Red Sox 18-5. Cedric Mullins is hitting (.692 with four runs scored), John Means is pitching (seven shutout innings on opening day), and Trey Mancini is back after a bout with cancer. This week they move up a level by facing the defending AL East champion New York Yankees.

Don’t I know you? Former Nationals catcher Pedro Severino is hitting .500, although he’s been gone so long one wonders what the statute of limitations is regarding “former Nats”. Michael A. Taylor is a much more recent departure, and the Kansas City outfielder is hitting .462 with two homers and six RBI.  Adam Eaton is off to a .250 start with a homer and three RBI.

Last Month’s Heroes- with no actual games to go on for our weekly “Heroes” segment, we’ll look at who shined in March. The first base tandem of Josh Bell (.383 with 6 homers and 15 RBI) and Ryan Zimmerman (.481 with 6 homers and 15 RBI) give one confidence that position will produce in 2021 after a subpar 2020. Starting pitcher Joe Ross posted an ERA of 2.79 over 9.2 innings while reliever Wander Suero’s 1.80 ERA over 8.1 innings was the best of the bullpen.

Last Month’s Humbled- relievers Daniel Hudson (11.12 ERA) and Brad Hand (12.15) didn’t have the best numbers during the exhibition slate, but both veteran pitchers can be expected to fare better now that the games are for real. The same can’t be said for third baseman Carter Kieboom, whose .133 batting average with three extra base hits in Florida sent him to the alternate site in Fredericksburg.

Game to Watch- Tuesday against Atlanta. I hope. The season won’t be delayed any longer, will it? The Nats will likely start Max Scherzer, who would actually pitching in rhythm with his April 1 appearance that was wiped off of the schedule. The Braves are looking to get their first win of the year as well after getting swept by the Phillies. Regardless of who starts for the Nats, I’m just hoping we get a full nine in and get the year underway at long last.

Game to Miss- Sunday they wrap up their series at the Los Angeles Dodgers while the Masters will be winding down its final round. The season is 162 games (fingers crossed) while golf has only four majors. Augusta green > Dodger blue.

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After what was the longest year for many, sport’s longest season begins this week with the Washington Nationals hosting the New York Mets. And I guess the offseason is a little bit longer with the opener postponed. General Manager Mike Rizzo said Thursday that three players have tested positive for COVID-19 with another likely positive after an inconclusive test. The entire series with the Mets has been postponed and the season will start at the earliest Monday when Atlanta is slated to drop by the district. For many in DC there is still the feel of being defending World Series champs as 2020 was reduced to a 60-game sprint without spectators on South Capitol Street, as well as a season where the reigning World Series MVP was limited to five innings because of carpal-tunnel syndrome.

The Nats showed plenty of promise during its 10-9-5 exhibition schedule (beginning and ending with ties), but that’s the March mindset. Wins and the good plate appearances/solid pitching outings/sharp plays in the field are seen as the byproduct of being on track. Losses and the shortcomings at the plate, on the mound and in the field are simply seen as “working out the kinks”. Now that the team has shaken off any rust and gotten its players and pitchers in rhythm, the big-picture question is can the Nationals contend for a playoff berth like they have for most of the previous nine years? And just like the movie “Back to School”, this one question has multiple parts- 21 to be exact. Hey, a long season deserves a long list. Dig in.

1- What effect will COVID-19 have on this season? Understatement of the year. We saw how a lineup and roster could be altered in 2020 when Juan Soto was held out of the first few games in July. The absence of some bats and arms loom a lot larger than others. General Manager Mike Rizzo said Thursday that three players have tested positive for COVID-19, with one suffering a fever and the other two asymptomatic at the time. As of Friday morning the entire team is on “lockdown” with players in quarantine. As what we hope will be a 162-game season gets underway, we have to recognize that the COVID cloud will always be on the horizon.

2- I don’t know-third base?. Carter Kieboom hit .202 last year with one extra base hit. Given another chance to own the position this year, the 23-year old hit .133. His demotion to the minors (that won’t begin playing games until May) means that Starlin Castro (45 career games at third in his 11-year career) slides over while Josh Harrison gets plugged in at second. The position that provided plenty of offense for this team in the past, from Ryan Zimmerman to Anthony Rendon, needs to improve after driving in the third-fewest runs in the majors last year.

3- Will Strasburg be rested or rusty? When we last saw Stephen Strasburg, he was shut down for the 2020 season and needed surgery on his wrist after tossing a career-low five innings. He’s looked sharp in his four spring starts after being sidetracked with a strained calf. Will we get the Strasburg of 2019 from a quality (he led the league in wins and innings pitched while tossing a career high 251 strikeouts) as well as quantity (that was one of two years in his career where Strasburg started more than 30 games). His first start appears to be Saturday.

4- Home field advantage? The Nats went 15-18 last year in DC, their first losing record at home since 2009. If they had just reproduced their average mark at home over the last five seasons (232-178, .572, or 19-14) they would have finished .500 and in the playoffs. Manager Davey Martinez has called the Nationals fans his team’s “26th man”, although with MLB roster expansion they’re now the 27th man (28th on doubleheader days). Regardless, Davey and his team missed their home crowd last summer when they had to play in front of empty seats. How big home field will hold this year is huge as 13 of the team’s first 19 games are in Washington.

5- How hot will April get? And as we’re on the topic of the start of the season, April has not been a banner month under Martinez. The Nats went 11-16 in 2018 and 11-14 in 2019 (for the record, the went 3-4 last July). They begin 2021 with six straight games against NL East foes: three against the much-improved Mets followed by three against two-time defending division champ Atlanta. Then it’s a three-game series at the defending World Series champ Los Angeles Dodgers. That’s quite an April appetizer.

6- Robles leading off? I know, this should have been the first question if I was really focused on form. But Victor Robles atop the batting order has been a big part of this spring, and the 23-year old is hitting .296 with 13 runs scored in 54 at-bats. His walks (only five) remain a little light, but if he can cause havoc on the basepaths (five steals this spring and 28 in his first full season of 2019) to set the table the Nats offense can build off of last year’s lineup that ranked fifth in batting but tenth in runs scored.

7- Will Max finally be mortal? Max Scherzer’s signing in 2015 was perhaps the best-ever free agent pickup in the modern game (old-schoolers will still point to Reggie Jackson in the 1970’s) from an individual (two Cy Young Awards plus a year where he led the NL with 18 wins and 300 strikeouts) and team standpoint (he started the 2019 Wildcard Game as well as Game Seven of the World Series while going 3-0 in his other three starts that October). He turns 37 this July and the veteran’s ERA has increased each season since 2017. I’m not going to tell him he’s past his prime, but father time has a little more pull than I do.

8- How much stock should we put in 2020? Max didn’t necessarily have an off-year in 2020, but two of the team’s offseason pickups did. Josh Bell hit .277 with 37 homers and 116 RBI in 2019 before dipping to .226 with 8 and 22 last summer (those numbers translate to 22 homers and 59 RBI over 162 games). He looks like he’s reverting to his 2019 look after leading the majors with a .383 batting average in Spring Training while hitting 6 homers with 15 RBI. Kyle Schwarber hit .188 in 2020, but the team is banking on getting the outfielder who hit 38 homers with 92 RBI the season before.

9- Will we get a comeback from Corbin? Lefthanded pitcher Patrick Corbin struggled in 2019, posting a 2-7 record with an ERA of 4.66 (his highest since 2016, when he was used as both a starter and reliever in Arizona). In four Spring Training outings the 31-year old tossed 12.2 innings over four appearances. And while his ERA of 3.55 was more impressive than his 9 to 7 strikeout to walk ratio, March doesn’t mean everything: Corbin went 14-7 in 2019 after a 4.88 exhibition ERA.

10- How will the catching combination connect? Yan Gomes gets a new running mate with Kurt Suzuki’s departure, and Alex Avila does not bring the same bat that Suzuki provided (19 homers with 80 RBI over 128 games). The veteran has hit .184, .207, and .165 the previous three seasons. But the 34-year old brings a steady presence behind the plate and has caught Max Scherzer in Detroit, Patrick Corbin in Arizona, and Jon Lester with the Chicago Cubs.

11- Will there be “market correction”? Two bright spots for 2020 were Trea Turner (led the league with 78 hits) and Juan Soto (tops with a .351 batting average). Each were on track to drive in more than 100 runs. And given their relatively small sample sizes (313 games played for Soto and 541 for Turner) one doesn’t really know if last year was the rung on a ladder to pass or step down from. Case in point: Turner’s career batting average is .296 and he’s hit within ten points of that just once in his six years at the major league level. They can both be still just as good players but not as productive as they were in 2020’s 60-game sprint.

12- Will the NL East be as good as advertised? Atlanta has won the division two straight years and appears to be ready for another run while the New York Mets are much improved. Miami made the playoffs last season and Philadelphia boasts the bat of Bryce Harper. The Nats will play 76 games against that quartet, and their intra-division success will go a long ways to determining if they’re a playoff contender or pretender come September.

13- Is it cool to keep an eye on the exes? Speaking of Bryce, how will the former Nats mainstay fair in his third season with the Phillies and when do we no longer refer to Harper as a former National? The outfielder has hit .245 with 5 homers and 12 RBI in 29 games against his former team over the last two years- not exactly Daniel Murphy-as-Alanis Morissette-numbers against the Mets. Other former Nationals one might be curious about include Anthony Rendon, whose .286 batting average with 9 homers and 31 RBI for the Angels dwarfed Carter Kieboom and company in 2020 (even with Rendon’s annual missing time to injury). But just two years removed from a World Series, is it rational to be focused on those who have left Washington via free agency? And who said we had to be rational about baseball?

14- How will losing his thyroid gland affect Jon Lester? Offseason surgery is not uncommon. Having one’s thyroid gland taken out during Spring Training is. Since the surgery Lester has been fine, making three starts and looking like the kind of pitcher you want as your fourth starter. He didn’t miss a turn in the rotation last year for the Cubs and previously had a stretch of 12 seasons where he made at least 30 starts.

15- Will the “return to normalcy include” Racing Presidents? Last year the club continued the tradition of running George, Tom, Abe & Teddy in a virtual manner by video. As fans are slowly being brought back to the ballpark, will the fourth inning tradition be resumed in a live manner? And will we get a “guest” President like Taft, Coolidge (ironic for a guy who famously chose “not to run”), and Hoover? If we go by the White House Christmas Tree Ornament rotation of years past, LBJ is due up this year.

16- What sort of season will we get from Joe Ross? The fifth starter in the rotation is a guy who opted out of 2020 and has made more than 15 starts in a season just once in his career. The right-hander made three appearances in March and appears on track to fill that fifth spot. While one doesn’t need a superstar in that spot, it’d be nice for Ross to have an ERA under five-something that hasn’t happened since 2016.

17- Bench production? In 2019 players like Asdrubal Cabrera, Ryan Zimmerman, Howie Kendrick, and Gerardo Parra didn’t start enough games at one position to be considered the “starter”, but each contributed enough to help push the team into the postseason and beyond. With Michael A. Taylor gone, will Andrew Stevenson make the necessary leap? And with the infield shuffle underway for the time being, will there need to be moves in August to bolster the lineup (like Cabrera and Parra two years ago)?

18- Wither the Ryan in Winter? Speaking of Zim, the face of the franchise is back after opting out of 2020 (his wife gave birth and his mother has MS). The 37-year old homered in his first Spring Training game and was on a tear all month. He’s had injury issues as well as slow starts in the past, but in a role where he’s not playing every day could we get a season like the one we got from Kurt Suzuki in 2019 (17 homers and 63 RBI over 85 games)? And more importantly, when will the Ballston location of The Salt Line actually open (asking for a friend)?

19- Is the pen mightier? The Nats relief corps has had a checkered past- even during the 2019 World Championship season the bullpen had the second-highest ERA in the majors. The offseason addition of Brad Hand should complement Daniel Hudson, while Will Harris begins the year on the Injured List. Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan, Erick Fedde and Austin Voth are also expected to contribute. The bullpen on April 1 does not always look like the eventual relief corps, and depending on who pitches well can sometimes bear little resemblance to the guys in the pen after the trading deadline.

20- New coaches, new ideas? Davey Martinez brings back the bulk of his staff, with bench coach Tim Bogar, hitting coach Kevin Long, assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler, and bullpen coach Henry Blanco returning to those roles. Bob Henley moves from first base coach back to third (his role from 2014-19) while longtime organization man Randy Knorr is the new first base coach after directing the club’s alternate training site in Fredericksburg last season (he’s previously served as bullpen and bench coach in DC). New to the organization is pitching coach Jim Hickey, who has had similar roles with Tampa Bay (Davey Martinez was on the same staff) and the Chicago Cubs. Will the moves make a major impact? One expects Henley to return to his aggressive mindset (he was nicknamed “Bob Sendley” at one point) while a new set of eyes on the arms has paid dividends in the past: the shakeup that made Minor League Coordinator Paul Menhart the pitching coach in May 2019 seemed to get the rotation on track.

21- Which call-ups will contribute? Sometimes we know who the next Nats stars are, from Anthony Rendon raking it during 2013 Spring Training to the hoopla surrounding Trea Turner while he was still with the Padres organization. Other times a Juan Soto takes us completely by surprise. The Nats success over the last decade has been a byproduct of talent shooting up its minor league system, and if they hope to contend today we’ll need to see a decent dose of how good tomorrow can be.

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After 2020 saw the cancellation of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, this March has been a gift. But the gift of each March carries with it an expiration date: 48 of the 64 schools went home last week and by Tuesday only four schools will remain in San Antonio. Every game is a gift for the teams still alive, one more 40-minute (or longer if there’s overtime) opportunity to earn another day together before the season ends. For the Maryland women’s basketball team, this entire season has been a gift for Coach Brenda Frese. “They’ve been just a joy to coach in a really difficult situation,” Frese said. “I think this team has given a lot of our Maryland fans and the people supporting us a lot of joy to be able to see this team and how far they’ve come.”

This year’s team is like none other Coach Frese has had in her tenure. While she’s had transfers in the past who have contributed, this year’s team has three transfers starting: Katie Benzan (Harvard) led the nation in three-point shooting (over 50% from outside the arc), Mimi Collins (Tennessee) stepped up when freshman Angel Reese missed two months with a foot injury, and Chloe Bibby (Mississippi State) tries to put her finger on the joy this team has together. “The chemistry on this team is just off the charts. We get along so well on and off the court and I think that translates. That’s why we’re able to have so much fun while we’re playing and I think you can see that, “senior forward Chloe Bibby said. “I think that’s what makes this team oh so special.”

Maryland meets No. 6 seed Texas in the Regional Semifinals (9 p.m. tipoff on ESPN), a round that the Terps are 6-2 in under Coach Frese. The broad brush would paint this matchup as Maryland’s high-octane offense (tops in the nation at over 90 points per game) against the Longhorns’ stingy defense (63 points allowed per game while holding Bradley and UCLA to 62 points apiece in the NCAA Tournament). “They do a tremendous job on the glass and defensively they want to turn you over,” Frese said. “They want to force you into a lot of pressure situations.” Texas held UCLA TO 1-19 from three-point range in their Second Round victory, but they haven’t met a team like the Terps this winter. “That’s fine that they’re a defensive team but they’ve still got to try to stop us. We’re the best offense in the country,” Bibby said. “We’ve proven that day in and day out.” And even though the Terps are viewed as the offensive powerhouse, they’ve turned opponents over 19.5 times per game in the tournament. “I think you’re going to see both teams want to turn each other over,” Frese said. “Which team is going to be more successful at it and going to be able to capitalize through those turnovers to finish plays. I think it’s going to be an important element in this game.”

The Longhorns are led by 6-foot-5 forward Charli Collier, who averages 19 points and 12 rebounds per game while shooting 52% from the field. But the Terps have made a point to deny their opponent’s major weapon in this year’s NCAA Tournament, from holding Mount St. Mary’s leading scorer Kendall Bresee to 0-10 shooting in the First Round to limiting Alabama’s Jordan Lewis to 2-9 shooting two days after she scored 32 points. Meanwhile, Maryland has six players averaging in double figures during the NCAA’s. Can they come together again to earn two more days of togetherness for the team and anticipation for their fans?

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There are multiple reasons why it’s might be easy for Nationals fans to write off last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There was the shortened season that turned out to be only 37% of an actual schedule. There was the lack of fans at the ballpark. And for the first time since before the franchise moved to Washington, Ryan Zimmerman did not suit up for any regular season games at the Major League level. But have no fear, the Nationals’ face of the franchise is back for 2021. And if his Spring Training performance is any indicator (five homers in his first eight games), it’s not in a ceremonial “victory lap” role, but as a contributor to a contending club. “I’m not coming back to get a last at-bat in front of fans,” Zimmerman said after signing his new contract in January. “I’m fine with how my career would have ended if I didn’t come back.”

The chance to return to the franchise where he had been a cornerstone for more than a decade made whatever pull retirement may have fade away. “It’s still a pretty good close-knit group of some of the guys that were there the last time I played,” Zimmerman said. “If it was a different situation and we had a bunch of roster turnover, it might have made the decision (to come back) a little harder. But they do such a great job of keeping a good group of guys together. It’s something that you want to be a part of.” And being part of the Nats clubhouse was something that he never really got used to last summer. “I think that’s what I missed the most, not being around the guys,” Zimmerman said. “Not having it for four months really made me realize how much I do love it.”

While Zimmerman missed the game, his team missed his presence at the plate, in the field, and in the clubhouse as well. “For me, it’s his conversations-not just with me but his teammates. He’s a super-positive guy all the time. He’s kind of that unspoken captain,” Manager Davey Martinez said. “I love talking to him all the time. Talking to him about the game and life itself. He’s a tremendous player and a person.” Martinez was able to play until he was 37, and thinks Zimmerman at age 37 is by no means winding things down. “I tell him: I don’t think this could be your last go-around if you keep yourself in shape–and he’s swinging the bat well right now–he could probably play for a few more years.” That possibility is definitely not lost on the Nationals’ first-ever draft pick plays in his third decade as a Major Leaguer. “You know if I can kind of settle into this role and do well this year by no means does this have to be my last year,” Zimmerman said.

After the trade for switch-hitting first baseman Josh Bell, Zimmerman’s role this year-in theory-will consist of pinch-hitting, batting against lefties and being the designated hitter in American League cities. But he’s also played long enough to know many theories are just that. In theory Zimmerman was supposed to be enjoying the sunset of his career in 2017 (after averaging 12 homers with 53 RBI over the previous three years) when he hit a career-best 36 home runs (to go with a second-best 108 RBI). In theory he was supposed to be a spare part after playing 52 injury-riddled games in 2019, and Zimmerman’s broken-bat single was a key part in the Wild Card game-winning rally. Did we mention he also hit the first Nats home run in the World Series that year? Sunsets are funny like that.

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How is everybody’s brackets (yes, we acknowledge that some people play multiple sheets) faring? Yeah, me too. That’s what happens with the miracle of March Madness in the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament. Is it perfect? Not exactly. But after not being able to dance last year, 2021 makes things feel a little bit normal–at least as normal as they can be. Thoughts on the first 52 games:

First Four Placement- I actually enjoyed having the four Opening Round/Don’t Call These Games “Play-in” matchups held the night before the Round of 64 began. I’m all for less stretching things out and I also liked how they were in close proximity to the rest of the First Round sites. I’ve always felt that despite Dayton loving hosting the “First Four” it’s better to have the teams head straight to the site of their First Round matchup. Especially for the 16 seeds who earned their way in by winning a conference championship that get to feel as though they’re part of the tournament instead of a playoff.

Conference Call, or Big Ten Blues- the league that sent nine schools to the NCAA Tournament has just one Sweet 16 representative- a Michigan team that seemed shaky due to Isaiah Livers’ injury.  The carnage began when Michigan State lost in overtime to UCLA in the First Four.  Little did we know that Ohio State and Purdue would flame out in the First Round while Illinois and Iowa would slip in Second Round games to lower seeds.  Wisconsin, Maryland and Rutgers couldn’t continue their March magic after pulling First Round upsets (technically-by seeding).  The Scarlet Knights loss was extremely painful, as Houston finished the game on a 14-2 run over the final 4:30.  Meanwhile, the Pac-12 went 9-1 and has four teams in the Regional Semifinal Round for the first time since 2001.  The ACC?  Syracuse and Florida State- two “new money schools” if you ask around Greensboro.  The SEC? Alabama and Arkansas earned straight A’s over the weekend.  The Big 12? Only big dog Baylor after multiple flameouts.  And the Big East sends two- crippled by injuries Villanova and a Creighton team that lost by 25 to Georgetown in the Tournament Championship.

Late Late Late- Was anyone mentally done with hoops when either 9:40 game started Sunday or Monday?  We understand the Turner folks need to be fed and CBS needs its “exclusivity window” for its afternoon tripleheader, but would it be the worst thing ever if they swapped the 9:40 start for a 4:40 tipoff? In an ideal world the last game would tip off at 8…but I’d settle for the lack of the late late game.

Alma Mater Update- somehow the Orange made the field as a No. 11 seed and somehow they’re in the Sweet Sixteen for the third time as an “underdog” since 2016. And who would have thought that it’s Buddy Boeheim who was shooting the team a round beyond its seed. SU fans have been spoiled over the last 45 years; for the longest time they were a team that rolled up 25-win seasons only to stumble in the NCAA Tournament repeatedly (the name Richmond still makes stomachs turn). The last ten years has seen this team overachieve in March after less than elite regular seasons. Whatever the case, they’ve reached the Regional Round for the 20th time in Jim Boeheim’s career. I’m going to enjoy this weekend.

On the Coaching Carousel- Shaka Smart is off to Marquette and Lon Kruger is off to retirement, meaning a pair of Big 12 schools with deep pockets and just enough success to warrant raised expectations will be knocking on doors of mid-major coaches. And just like Smart left VCU for Texas and Anthony Grant once left the same school for Alabama and Archie Miller departed Dayton for Indiana, someone will make the move. There’s always a chance it’s a good move for both the school and the coach, but there’s always the chance we’re here again in 3-5 years wondering who’s going to be the next one to take the job.

Local Woes-Mount St. Mary’s (12-11) led Texas Southern 30-20 at halftime in their First Four game before the Tigers came out of intermission with a 11-0 run. They’d take the lead for good with a 15-4 run later in the half and hold the Mountaineers to a pair of baskets in the final seven minutes of regulation. The 60-52 loss ends what was a magnificent March for Coach Dan Engelstad’s team that had five freshman and can potentially return 13 players next fall.

Virginia Tech (15-7) was the first team to fall in Friday’s First Round, but the Hokies extended Florida into overtime on a three-pointer by Nahiem Alleyne with 1.7 seconds left. The Hokies eventually came up short 75-70 after the extra session. Year two under Mike Young saw a team picked in the bottom third of the ACC finish third in the conference and reach the NCAA Tournament a year ahead of schedule. It’s morning again in Blacksburg.

Georgetown (13-13) after its dream run through the Big East Tournament received a rude awakening Saturday afternoon in their 96-73 First Round loss to Colorado. The Buffaloes stampeded thanks to 61% shooting while seniors Jamorko Pickett and Jahvon Blair shot a combined 5-19 from the field. But with a highly touted recruiting class on the way to DC, the Hoyas will be talking silver linings as opposed to touches of gray this offseason.

Virginia (15-7) saw their season end in the First Round Saturday night with a 62-58 loss to Ohio. After taking a 38-31 lead with 14:35 remaining in regulation, the Cavaliers made just 4-21 shots the rest of the way while going over ten minutes without a basket. The were also outrebounded by nine, meaning their misses mostly resulted in one and done on the offensive end. Jason Preston (no relation) tallied 11 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists for the Bobcats. UVa has run the March gamut recently, from losing to UMBC in 2018 to winning it all the following season, to winning eight straight entering the 2020 ACC Tournament that was shelved, to having to withdraw from this year’s ACC Tournament and having minimal practice heading into their First Round game.

VCU (19-7) saw its season end in an unorthodox manner-the Rams were sent home after multiple positive COVID-19 tests within the program. Many (myself included) had Coach Mike Rhoades team making noise against Oregon, and unfortunately March ends in just as cruel a manner as 2020 did.

Maryland (17-14) ran into a buzzsaw by the name of Alabama. The second-seeded Crimson Tide shot 16-33 from three-point range in their 96-77 win over the Terps. What was a brief 18-12 first half lead evaporated thanks to a stretch where the Tide made 6-7 shots (and 3-4 from outside the arc).  Aaron Wiggins finishes with 27 points while Darryl Morsell likely closes his Terps career with 10 points, 2 rebounds, and 3 assists. Now the attention moves on to the offseason, and a pending contract extension for Coach Mark Turgeon. He’s already being mentioned as a potential candidate for the Oklahoma vacancy.

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Every hurdle is a little different in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. While the Maryland Women are 15-0 in First Round games under Coach Brenda Frese, the Terps are 8-7 in the Second Round. In four of five Round of 32 losses since 2010, they’ve been the favorite. And three times that’s happened at home inside the Xfinity Center. In some cases the leap between facing a one-bid league to a Power Five conference team is significant, like swapping out a Radford for a UCLA. Other times its facing an underseeded team that catches fire, like the No. 7 seed Washington that reached the 2016 Final Four. Regardless, the 2021 Terrapins are guarded as they attempt to reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2017.

Maryland won its First Round game over Mount St. Mary’s 98-45 thanks to a 25-4 run in the second quarter that effectively put the game away. The nation’s number one offense (91 points per game) did it with defense Monday, holding the Mountaineers to to 15-61 (25%) while turning them over 20 times. Ashley Owusu led a balanced attack with 22 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists against the Mountaineers. The Third Team All-American and First Team All-Big Ten selection reminds her coach of another Terp-but not necessarily a guard. “I could say her progression kind of reminds me of (All-American center) Crystal Langhorne,” Frese said. “Crystal came in as a really shy, quiet introverted player to watching her now on the court, comfortable in her skin, with the media.”

Next up? An Alabama team that beat North Carolina 80-71 in the First Round. The Crimson Tide are led by the twin towers of 6-foot-3 forwards Jasmine Walker (the senior transfer from Florida State averages 19 points and 10 rebounds per game while hitting 40% of her three-pointers) and Ariyah Copeland (the senior shoots 62% from the field while averaging 15 points with 9 rebounds a game), while fifth-year senior Jordan Lewis tallied 32 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists in their win over the Tar Heels. “Well, we’ve got our work cut out from their big three. You saw the monster game that Lewis had for them,” Frese said. “Walker, Copeland. And then they got key contributions from a lot of their other players. For us: nothing changes, it’s just a collective effort for forty minutes.” Those forty minutes begin today at 1 p.m.

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This year’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament has been moved in its entirety to the San Antonio area.  The Alamo was originally a Roman Catholic mission in colonial times, and this year with the Alamo as the backdrop the Maryland Women’s Basketball Team finds itself on its annual mission: In Coach Brenda Frese’s 19 seasons the Terps have reached three Final Fours while winning one National Championship.  After a March that was wiped out by COVID-19, they’re back with the same mission in mind.

Even in the season like none other, the Terrapins find themselves in a familiar place:  for the third time in ten years they’re a No. 2 seed (they’ve been a top four seed nine times in ten seasons).  The Big Ten regular season and tournament champions boast a 24-2 mark and have won 13 straight. And unlike last year’s edition that was built on defense (ranking 29th in scoring defense) and rebounding (16th best rebounding margin), this year’s team is outscoring foes: their 91 points per game led all of Division I.

These Terps are built around a strong perimeter: sophomore guard Ashley Owusu was voted Third Team All-American and First Team All-Big Ten, senior Katie Benzan took Honorable Mention All-America after leading the nation in three-point shooting (50.7% from outside the arc), and Diamond Miller was voted First Team All-Big Ten. But two difference makers of late have been forwards Chloe Bibby and Mimi Collins. Collins sat out last winter after transferring from Tennessee and has hit her stride lately, averaging 14 points while shooting 62% from the field in her last seven games. “She’s playing some of her best basketball. She’s making the right plays at the right time. Just seeing her round into form for that consistency factor that we needed on both ends of the floor: her toughness, her rebounding,” coach Brenda Frese said. “Obviously having a forward like her to stretch it like she can makes us extremely difficult to guard us.”

Collins is one of three transfers who have made an impact on this year’s roster: Chloe Bibby (Mississippi State) is a three-point threat that can also rebound while Alaysia Styles (Cal) is a defensive difference-maker off the bench. As they near the tournament, the team’s mindset is locked in. “I think for us it’s ‘business as usual’. We’re not going to go in and try and play outside of ourselves or do anything different because what we’ve been doing throughout the whole season has been working,” Bibby said. “No one is super-nervous. We’re all just excited to go out there and play.”

The Terps begin with Mount St. Mary’s Monday at 4 p.m. The Mountaineers beat Wagner 70-38 to take the Northeast Conference Tournament Championship and are led by fifth year senior Kendall Bresee who paces the team with 14.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. While the program under Coach Brenda Frese has never lost a First Round game as a No. 2 seed, they have fallen twice in the Second Round: in 2007 to Ohio State and in 2016 to Washington (the Huskies would reach the Final Four). Alabama and North Carolina play the other First Round game in the Terps’ quadrant, and while the Tar Heels appear to be the hotter team (five wins in seven games) the Crimson Tide’s 1-3 finish includes three losses to ranked teams. No. 3 seed UCLA is the most likely Regional Semifinal foe, while No. 1 seed South Carolina is already laying waste to its side of the Region (beating Mercer 79-53 Sunday in their First Round game).

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As we are less than two weeks from the start of the Nationals regular season, the age-old question will actually be about the aging rotation on a team built around its starting pitching. The starting staff posted a 3.53 ERA in 2019 (second best in the majors behind the Dodgers) and then delivered bigtime in the postseason: Stephen Strasburg went 5-0 with a 1.98 ERA, tossed three scoreless innings in the Wild Card Game, and captured World Series MVP honors while Max Scherzer went 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA and threw three scoreless frames in Game Two of the NLDS. Anibal Sanchez pitched 7.2 scoreless innings in Game One of the NLCS (after the bullpen was gassed in winning Games 4 and 5 in the NLDS) while Patrick Corbin merely won Game Seven of the World Series in relief. Last year the rotation had issues from the start, from Joe Ross’ opting out to Stephen Strasburg’s wrist injury. And even with Anibal Sanchez departing and Jon Lester arriving, the rotation gets older in 2021. The four main starting pitchers (we’re going to categorize Joe Ross/Erick Fedde/Austin Voth in the “co-starring” category in the credits) will be a big part in determining if the Nationals return to their previously contending ways or finishing under .500 for the second consecutive year.

Max Scherzer- 36 years old. All Star Game appearances: seven, most recently in 2019. Best season: 2017 when he went 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA and 268 strikeouts while winning his most recent Cy Young Award. What happened in 2020: his 3.74 ERA was his highest since 2012. He’s more than just a bulldog who puts up numbers on the mound (and occasionally at the plate and on the basepaths-witness his hits and stolen bases), the veteran has been a dynamic leader in the Nats clubhouse since his arrival in 2015. “I’ve often said that people get to see him every five days, I get to see him every day and he competes every day. with him, his teammates—he pushes everybody to be better,” Manager Davey Martinez said on the day of Max’s first Spring Training start. “He’s a winner–he loves to compete.” He also enters the final season of that seven-year contract.

Stephen Strasburg– 32 years old. All Star Game appearances: three, most recently in 2017. Best season: 2019 when he led the NL with 18 wins and 209 innings pitched. What happened in 2020: carpal-tunnel syndrome shut down his season with wrist surgery after a career-low five innings pitched. His March hasn’t been without mishaps, as his second start of Spring Training was shortened by a strained calf. “I didn’t really it at all except for like the last pitch. I just kind of like felt it simultaneously as I was finishing the pitch,” Strasburg said. “And then it was just kind of precautionary reasons at this point in camp. Just go in (leave the game) and make sure that it’s not gonna alter mechanics or affect me long term.” In his 11 seasons since arriving in Washington, Strasburg has posted 30+ starts three times.

Patrick Corbin- 31 years old (even though it feels as though he should be 3-5 years younger than Strasburg). All Star Game appearances: two, most recently in 2018. Best season: 2019 when he went 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA and 238 strikeouts. What happened in 2020: his first losing record (2-7) since 2016 and his highest ERA (4.66) since that year. The lefthander may be experimenting with his change-up pitch this spring. “Everyone knows I’m throwing a slider (in big spots) so to have something else available to maybe keep them off of that pitch is kind of what we’re thinking there,” Corbin said after his first Spring Training start. “It’ll be something I’ll continue to work with and hopefully it’s a pitch I do throw a lot over the season.” Another pitch would pay dividends: according to baseballsavant.mlb.com, 40.3% of the lefthander’s pitches were sliders in 2020 while only 5.6% of his pitches were changeups.

Jon Lester- 37 years old (even though he feels as though he should be 5-7 years older than Scherzer). All Star Game appearances: five, most recently in 2018 (he’d lead the league with 18 wins that year). Best season: 2016 when he went 19-5 with a 2.44 ERA and 197 strikeouts. What happened in 2020: 3-3 with an ERA of 5.16 (highest of his career but the third time in four years it was 4.33 or higher. He also had his thyroid gland removed March 5 but made his Spring Training debut March 18, striking out a pair over two innings while tossing 31 pitches. “The biggest thing for me was that each day was kind of a test, I think just getting further away from the surgery as far as energy level and how my body’s responding to each individual day. So a workout, maybe a bullpen, then throwing, and then we had the sim-game.” If there’s one thing we do know about Lester, it’s that he posts. As in the veteran started 12 games last year (every fifth game) and notched 30 or more starts in the previous 12 years.

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The wait is over. The ball is tipped at 5:10 this evening in Bloomington, Indiana one year and one day after the tournament that never happened was supposed to begin. With all 68 teams cleared to play it appears as though we’ve got Madness on the horizon at long last. And tipping things off is Mount St. Mary’s: the school that lies a 67-minute drive from Washington plays Texas Southern in Thursday’s First Four. “This is a great game for our program,” Mountaineers coach Dan Engelstad said. “All eyes of the basketball community will be on us…we’re gonna get a chance to compete on the highest stage.” The Mount is back for the first time since 2017 and has made the Big Dance four other times since moving up to Division I. Fans of a certain age will recall the bowtie wearing Jim Phelan on their sidelines in the 90’s, but Engelstad’s focus isn’t on the past but on his program’s present foe. “This is as an athletic team as we’ve seen, they are extremely fast in transition,” Engelstad said. “We can’t give them any pick-sixes (turnovers that lead to layups). We gotta protect the basketball because if they get out in transition—they’re really good. They’re very good north-south. They’ve got some great drivers that assault the paint. We gotta keep them out of it and limit penetration.” The Mountaineers are in good shape to do so after ranking 16th in the nation in scoring defense and 35th in rebounding margin. The winner plays No. 1 seed Michigan Saturday in the First Round. And while top seeds are 139-1 since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, don’t tell that to a coach who has his team potentially forty minutes away from facing one. “These guys have played the Kentucky’s of the world. We’ve played Georgetown,” Engelstad said. “There’s not going to be a fear there. And the one thing that we do very well–which carries–is we guard at an extremely high level.”

While Mount St. Mary’s plays in the first game of the tournament, the First Round wraps up wraps up Saturday night when VCU plays Pac-12 regular season champ Oregon. The Atlantic 10 Tournament runner-up makes its 11th appearance in 18 years under five different coaches. Former assistant Mike Rhoades returned in 2017 and the program hasn’t missed a beat. You’ll want to stay up for the 9:57 p.m. tipoff if only to see sophomore Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland: the A-10 Player of the Year’s 19.5 points per game led the league and even while being bothered by a foot injury averaged 21 points with 7 rebounds and 3 assists during the conference tournament. While VCU conjures up deep March runs thanks to their trip from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011, the Rams have won just one tournament game since 2013: as fate would have it against Oregon State in 2016. Meanwhile, Oregon is 6-0 in the First Round under current coach Dana Altman.

The West Region begins with a school chasing a title and history. Gonzaga (26-0) began the year ranked number one, and they’re six wins away from becoming the first unbeaten National Champion since Indiana in 1976. They’re no longer fighting the previous stigma as a team that couldn’t reach the Final Four (the Bulldogs were the National runner-up in 2017). Other intriguing matchups in that bracket involve former Big Eight/Big 12 foes Oklahoma and Missouri playing in the 8/9 game, while former Missouri Valley Conference competitors Wichita State and Drake play in one of the First Four games. Of course, the committee never cooks the books for these “random and coincidental” matchups.

Bold- Drake. When the Bulldogs began the season by starting 18-0, I LOVED THE DRAKE! and even had them in my Associated Press Top 25. When they lost two of three, I HATED THE DRAKE! and consigned them to my mid-major dustbin. When they responded by winning five straight, I LOVED THE DRAKE again. And even when they came up short in their regular season finale against Bradley and then lost to Loyola (Illinois) in the MVC Finals, I find myself still LOVING THE DRAKE. I love their First Four matchup against former conference foe Wichita State even more while their First Round opponent USC is far from invincible (it doesn’t hurt that a First Four winner often wins its next game as well). And if the season ends a round earlier than I project, I’ll just go back to being CONFUSED BY THE DRAKE.

Fold- Virginia will not arrive at Indianapolis until Friday after pausing during the ACC Tournament and being in quarantine for most of the last week. They have a conference regular season crown, but finished with the same amount of losses as Florida State and Virginia Tech–two teams that beat them. They face MAC champ Ohio, who’s led by Jason Preston-no relation- who averages 17 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists per game while shooting 41% from three-point range. If Kippy & Buffy aren’t nervous, they should be.

Gold- Top-ranked Gonzaga leads the nation in scoring (92 points per game) and shooting (55% from the field) while ranking 17th in Division I in rebounding margin. Mark Few’s team has won 25 of its 26 games by double digits (West Virginia has the honor with their five-point loss Dec. 2) and on those rare occasions when they have struggled (like when they trailed BYU by 12 at halftime of the West Coast Conference Championship Game) they’re able to blast their way past their opponent (outscoring the Cougars 47-25 in the second half). Led by All-Americans Corey Kispert, Drew Timme, and Jared Suggs the Bulldogs will may not make history, but they’ll be good enough to post four more wins and get to their second Final Four in five years.