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Home is supposed to be where the heart is…not seven losses in ten games.  Not the haven of bad baserunning and sloppy defense.  And certainly not the incubator of an offense that can’t seem to get out of its own way.  When the homestand began, the 4-2 Nats were looking forward to using their 10-game set on South Capitol Street as a springboard.  Instead, they leave for a suddenly crucial nine-game journey that involves a west coast swing but starts at the NL East-leading New York Mets.  Traditionally the west coast trip sneaks up on you in August at the most crucial time and often makes or breaks a season.  Could that be the case-gulp-in April?  Welcome to another interesting week in review… 

Break up the Mets!- while we know that a 12-2 start is not sustainable through a 162 game schedule, a division lead is still a division lead.  Pitching has been the difference for the Mets- who lead the majors with a 2.58 team ERA- while Yoenis Cespedes and Jay Bruce have delivered at the plate.  In previous seasons the injury bug didn’t just bite the Mets–the bug chewed and spit out this team.  It’s safe to say a healthy Mets team aren’t just going to provide the Nats with a challenge–but if the Mets take two or even sweep this week, the Nats will go from being the hunted to the hunters.

O’s Woes- at least the Nats are their neighbors to the north.  The Orioles are 5-11 (not too good) and have had issues hitting (29th ranked batting average in the bigs) and pitching (worst opponent’s batting average in MLB).  Chris Tillman, Alex Cobb, Kevin Gausman and Mike Wright Jr. each own ERA’s over six.  Thank goodness Tampa Bay is worse.

Last Week’s Heroes-  Max Scherzer notched 21 strikeouts while winning both of his starts…notching more hits at the plate (2) than walks issued from the mound (1).  Max also stole a base.  Tanner Roark scored a run in his lone start while allowing 3 hits over 6 innings Friday in a hard-luck loss.  Matt Wieters came off the DL with a bang…belting a pair of home runs against the Rockies.  Bryce Harper made the most of the limited pitches he saw to score a team-high five runs.

Last Week’s Humbled-  Ryan Zimmerman’s April issues (.136 battaing average with 6 strikeouts) continue while Trea Turner, Matt Adams, Moises Sierra and Brian Goodwin also hit under .200 for the week.  Shawn Kelley gave up a pair of homers while Sean Doolittle coughed up a ninth inning blast to Ian Desmond in the series finale.

Game to Watch- Saturday Stephen Strasburg pitches against Clayton Kershaw at Chavez Ravine.  This is the dream matchup when both are on their game. The fact that it’s on a Saturday makes the 9:10 first pitch more than workable.

Game to Miss- Tuesday the Capitals try to climb out of a 2-0 series crater against Columbus while the Wizards attempt to bounce back from their Game One loss at Toronto.  Sorry, Gio Gonzalez as you pitch against the New York Mets.  Postseason crises trump regular season issues more often than not.

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Okay, so we knew the Nationals were not going to go 162-0.  Or even 130-32.  But the last five games have been somewhat tough to stomach…as five consecutive losses drops the club under .500 since the days of Matt Williams.  They’ve been outscored 37-16 in that stretch…and while they knew the NL East would not be a cakewalk, now the Braves and Mets know it too.

Dissecting the Division- getting swept by the Mets means New York is atop the NL East at 7-1 while Atlanta is a game and a half back.  It’s still early, but the Mets rank 2nd in the majors in WHIP (walks + hits divided by innings pitched) and ERA while boasting the third best batting average in the bigs.  Meanwhile, the Braves lead MLB in batting average, runs scored, slugging and on base percentage.  The Nats are in third–with Philadelphia and Miami stumbling over each other thanks to and offseason fire sale and puzzling managerial moves by Gabe Kapler.  Yes, there are some in Philly who would rather have Gabe Kaplan managing.

Sick Bay- add Matt Wieters and a strained oblique to the DL.  While we weren’t expecting the world from the catcher this year, having to mine the minors for early-season replacements was not what the club intended

Last Week’s Heroes- Bryce Harper hit .333 while drawing 11 walks in 29 plate appearances.  Pedro Severino hit .320 with 3 RBI and 2 runs scored after being called up from the minors.  Relievers Sean Doolittle, Matt Grace, Ryan Madson, Shawn Kelley and Sammy Solis combined to toss 16.2 scoreless innings.

Last Week’s Humbled- AJ Cole had a less than ideal 2018 debut, allowing 10 earned runs over three and two thirds innings pitched.  Michael A Taylor (.182 with 9 strikeouts) and Ryan Zimmerman (.105) continue to struggle in early April.

Game to Watch- one wants to see Max Scherzer redeem himself after last Wednesday’s loss to Atlanta.  It’s a cold Monday in April but the Caps and Wiz are both idle.  And “The Americans” airs on Wednesday.  So we are going all-in on Max.

Game to Miss- on a week where we get Scherzer & Strasburg twice apiece, Gio Gonzalez in the hard-luck loser Thursday with the Caps beginning their playoff run the same night.

 

 

 

Four NL East titles in six years is a good thing…even with the unfortunate October endings that have plagued the Washington Nationals this decade. Ryan Zimmerman still has the phantom pains from 100+ loss campaigns where contending was a pipe dream and instead of a magic number a tragic number was posted some times as soon as August.  So even though DC is more than hungry for a champion–or even a team that plays for the championship–let’s enjoy the process as the team is once again favored to win its (albeit not awesome) division and has more than a few players who will potentially factor in the MVP and Cy Young races.

One Sweet Sweep- not only did the Nats take all three from Cincinnati, the Reds did not lead at all during the series.  Dominant pitching and timely hitting set the table for the weekend as the club did plenty of little things and more than a few big things right.  It’s only three games, I know.  But while a team can’t win the division in April, it can definitely lose its way.

O’s Woes- after a thrilling extra inning walkoff win (which is becoming the rule instead of the exception at Camden Yards) the Birds dropped two straight to Minnesota- an expected Wildcard contender.  Kevin Gausman looked bad in coughing up 6 runs over 4 innings while the Chris Davis leading off experiment has the top of the O’s order an 0-for-12.  And the bullpen almost gave away the opener.  But it’s still really early.

Last Week’s Heroes- Adam Eaton hit 8-for-13 with 2 homers and 5 RBI (do you think he was ready for 2018?)…while Bryce Harper not only homered twice but also got the job done with a pair of sac-flies.  Max Scherzer struck out 10 over 6 scoreless innings in the season opener while Sean Doolittle notched a pair of saves.

Last Week’s Humbled- relievers Enny Romero and Sammy Solis had less than ideal opening weekends, each allowing two earned runs while recording a pair of outs.  Ryan Zimmerman and Michael A Taylor both hit .125 against the Reds, but  Zim’s groundout Friday led to the first run of the season and Taylor used a bunt and a stolen base to generate an insurance run.  Once again, it’s only three games.

Game to Watch- there’s nothing quite like the home opener.  Even when it’s a week into the season.  Stephen Strasburg starts Thursday against the New York Mets in a matchup of the last two teams to win the division.

Game to Miss- sadly the Atlanta rebuild makes matchups against the Braves less than desirable.  With apologies to Tanner Roark, Monday night will be all about the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Championship Game as Villanova takes on Michigan.  One shining moment, indeed…

 

 

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–

What was the commercial that said, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression?”  Adam Eaton may get that chance this April as the team’s major offseason acquisition from last winter tries to finish what he started in 2017.  Eaton’s arrival last year was almost as much about who the Nats gave up:  former first round picks Lucas Giolito and Dane Dunning plus prime prospect Reynaldo Lopez. For the record, Giolito and Lopez both went 3-3 last year for the White Sox while Dunning pitched with single-A Kannapolis and Winston-Salem (although let’s be honest:  doesn’t Dane Dunning sound like the name of a teen sleuth in Young Adult Fiction?).  Eaton simply had one incredible April (ranking third in the majors in runs scored) before going down with a torn ACL 23 games into the season.

It’s amazing to think that the Nationals still went on to win 97 games minus their leadoff hitter for the vast majority of the season (and don’t forget they were minus plan B leadoff man Trea Turner for 60+ games due to a broken wrist).  Make no mistake, there was a void atop the order minus the player who earned the nickname Mighty Mouse:  he posted a .388 on base percentage (which would have ranked 2nd in MLB) from the leadoff spot while the other Nats’ leadoff hitters combined to hit .259 and the team finished 19th in the majors in on base percentage from the #1 spot in the batting order.  Trea Turner, Brian Goodwin and Wilmer Difo each have skills and can shine in the lineup, but none of them were able to duplicate Eaton’s April.

Every good sequel is a little bit different from the original, and that’s the case for Eaton II: Left Field Boogaloo.  Michael A. Taylor’s emergence last season in centerfield means Eaton shifts over to left.  There are those who dissect the numbers and analytics, and there are those who rely on the “eye test” when judging defensive players.  Both camps regard Eaton as better served in left field.  Last year 12 players saw action in left (including Eaton for three games) and stabilizing a position that is traditionally expected to produce offensively will be key.  Especially with Daniel Murphy’s recovery from knee surgery keeping the second baseman on the shelf until mid-April.

So the guy who is no longer the new kid in town gets a second chance at a first season with his new team that he’s been with for over a year.  At least he’ll get a chance to run around in July’s DC heat for the first time.  Bring some extra Mighty Mouse t-shirts to change into mid-game, Adam.  And welcome back.

So… how IS your bracket faring?  Did you have Virginia playing Purdue in the championship game like I did only to put Arizona in the Final Four when you learned that De’Andre Hunter was done for the year?  Did you bet on the wrong blue-bloods to advance?  Did you out-think the system?  Welcome aboard, friends.  Far from chalk- the NCAA Regionals resemble more survive than advance.

History has a strange way of coming back to bite you.- Virginia was #1 this winter for the first time since 1982 when the top-ranked Cavaliers lost to Chaminade.  Ryan Odom (son of then-assistant and future Wake Forest coach Dave Odom) was a ball-boy for that team.  Fast-forward 35 years and Odom the younger leads UMBC over UVa in not only an upset of the ages, but a smackdown to remember.  This wasn’t just a last-second shot or an errant pass, but a 20-point beatdown.  The Cavaliers go home knowing everybody knows they’re the first number one seed to lose to a #16 (and truth be told, if we still had the old 64-school bracket UMBC would have been a #15 and the Cavaliers would have face 15-19 Texas Southern).  I attended Syracuse and we got grief for 15 years about the Orange being the first #2 seed to lose to a #15…even after other schools had followed suit.  Even after SU had finally won a National Championship.  Tony Bennett will take a long look at himself and his coaching style.  And then he’ll come out of the summer of his discontent focused and ready to lead another Virginia team to 15+ wins in the ACC and threaten again next March.

One Sorry City- so much for Skyline Chili owning the month.  Xavier and Cincinnati both blew late leads in Second Round losses.  There’s nothing the fan bases of either school enjoys more than taking delight in their inner-city rival’s misery.  This winter it goes both ways.

Conference Call- the Big 12 and ACC each have four schools remaining, while the Big Ten and SEC have two teams left in the bracket.  The Pac-12?  Gone midway through the first round.  Mad props to the Summit, Mountain West and West Coast Conferences for having a school still in the field.  Rumor was the Big East was thinking about taking credit for Syracuse and West Virginia, but it would also mean they’d be saddled with Pitt.

Planting Seeds- they say figures do not lie but liars do figure.  While we’ve lost a pair of #1’s and two more #2’s, seven of the top 16 schools are still in the field.  And if you go one step further, there are three #5’s–meaning 10 of the top 20 schools are still around and as the difference between a #4 and a #5 is often microscopic you could make the case that 10 of the top 16 teams are still around.  While Loyola (Chicago) is a true Cinderella as a #11 (and needed a couple of miracle plays thanks to their 90-something year old Chaplain), Syracuse is far from an upstart despite their place as “the last at-large team in the bracket”.  Just like two years ago when they made the Final Four as a #10 seed, this is a case of a school that is peaking at the right time after a less than awesome regular season.

Different Paths- Kentucky may have been upset at their #5 seed with Virginia, Cincinnati and Arizona in their region one week ago.  Today those three schools have all been eliminated and the talented-but-young Wildcats are the favorites to win the South.  If you go by seeding numbers (5+7+9+11) of the survivors the South has a Madness rating of 32, highest of the bunch (for comparison, the West has a M rating of 23 while the Midwest owns a 19–and the East is one over chalk at 11).  Michigan looks to continue its incredible run (11 straight wins) in a West that has the tournament darlings-Loyola-as well as the gold standard of Cinderellas:  Gonzaga.  But this Bulldogs team is one that knows how to get to a Final Four (see last year).  Kansas is playing in Omaha–but is in ACC country with Duke, Clemson and Syracuse rounding out the regional–and has memories of being upset in tournament games close to home (Kansas City last year, Omaha in 2015, St Louis in 2014, Oklahoma City in 2010).  Villanova has the roughest road with West Virginia looming in a true contrast of styles–and I’m only referring to Jay Wright’s Italian suits against Bob Huggins’ tents and khakis.

Sunday Night Hoops- I still wish they got rid of the late Sunday game.  Did we need to see West Virginia meet Marshall at 9:40 p.m. on a Sunday?  After four days of great hoops, couldn’t we have ended after the 8:40 tilt?  All one has to do is shuffle the times and move the 7:10-9:40 doubleheader to 2:10-4:40.  It would give fans more hoops in the afternoon (especially if one of the early stand-alone games becomes a dog like Saturday) and put a nice bow on the weekend.

Maryland Women’s Season- the Terps ended the 2017-18 campaign with a 74-60 loss at North Carolina State in the Second Round this past Sunday.  This was hardly an ideal campaign:  not only did coach Brenda Frese have to compensate for losing two All-Americans to graduation, but the Terrapins also lost their best returning player to transfer (Destiny Slocum) while three others left the program.  Of those departures, one came back to haunt the Terps:  Kiara Leslie after graduating in three years at Maryland wanted to finish her career near her hometown of Holly Springs, NC.  She finished second in scoring this season for NC State before scoring 21 points against her former team.  Leslie sat out last season with an injury and had already made plans to transfer when Slocum, Kiah Gillespie and Jenna Staiti decided to go elsewhere.  If Leslie had stayed she would have been a big piece on a shorthanded team that lost Blair Watson to injury in January, but that’s why hindsight remains 20-20.  The Terps have another great recruiting class (#3, #32 and #33 prospects are headed to College Park) coming in and if Watson returns healthy this crew will challenge for the Big Ten title again next winter.

 

 

Who’s enjoying the First Four?  Me neither, even though my alma mater is playing in one of the “games that are not play-in games but have the lowest ranked automatic qualifiers and at-large teams”.  All eyes are on the brackets as one tries to figure out which teams will surprise, which ones will underwhelm and which schools will reach the final weekend of the month.  Yes, we’re back to the “Bold, Fold & Gold Picks”.  The “Bold” picks a team that advances far beyond its seed while the “Fold” selects a school that underwhelms.  Gold naturally is the pick to win the regional.

 

SOUTH- Leave it to #1 overall seed Virginia to suffer the injury bug again this March.  The ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year, De’Andre Hunter, is out for the rest of the season with a broken wrist.  The freshman averaged 10 points and 4 rebounds during the ACC Tournament.  Before the injury I had the Cavaliers going all the way to the championship game.  Now…not so much.

Bold-  Loyola (Illinois) finished third in the nation in shooting percentage (50.7%) and they’re facing a Hurricanes team that’s minus senior guard Bruce Brown Jr.  Be wary of the Ramblers.

Fold- Virginia should have no problem with UMBC in the First Round (although it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Cavaliers trailing at the half).  But minus their top reserve who provides energy at both ends of the floor for an extended run?  My original National Runnerup might not make it out of the first weekend…and will definitely have its hands full with Kentucky or Arizona in the Sweet 16.

Gold- Arizona instead of depending on a freshman role-player put all of their chips on the shoulders of a freshman phenom.  And 7-foot-1 center Deandre Ayton is a hitting his stride with seven double-doubles in his last eight games.  They also have the steady hand of senior point guard Parker-Jackson Cartwright directing the offense.

 

WEST- Xavier is the #1 seed;  the Musketeers have never been to the Final Four- their 27 appearances is the second most of any school (behind BYU) without a National Semifinal appearance. Will this be the year they finally break through?

Bold Providence bullied its way to the Big East Championship only to lose in overtime to Villanova after coach Ed Cooley split his pants.  The Friars knocked off top-5 teams ‘Nova and Xavier, so North Carolina won’t be too intimidating before the Tar Heels experience their customary basketball amnesia.

Fold- Ohio State played above its talent all season long under first-year coach Chris Holtmann, but got swept by Penn State and struggled down the stretch.  The early Big Ten Tournament means they will have played one game in 20 days when they face South Dakota State-and the Jackrabbits have a red-hot Mike Daum who averaged 26 points and shot 40% in their run through the Summit League Tournament.

Gold- no team finished the season playing better than Michigan.  Mo Wagner is a big who can stick threes…and Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman can go off when necessary.  John Beliein is the best coach nobody talks about…and this year the veteran grinder (stops at Lemoyne, Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia) gets his due.

 

EAST- Villanova gets the top seed…and this is the fifth straight year they’ve been a #1 or #2 seed.  While they won it all in 2016, the Wildcats were bounced the first weekend in 2014, 15 & 17.  Talk about feast or famine…

Bold- St. Bonaventure’s bolstered by the backcourt of Matt Mobley and Jaylen Adams.  Guards get it done in March and the Bonnies have the duo to become tournament darlings.

Fold- West Virginia defends very well for 94 feet over 40 minutes.  Unfortunately they have stretches where they forget how to use the basketball for scoring purposes.  Coach Bob Huggins’ teams have a history of flaming out on Fridays.

Gold- Purdue hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1980.  They knocked on the door for years with Gene Keady’s combover, and since have become a factor with Matt Painter.  He’s got skilled bigs who can make shots…and they’ll cut down the nets in Boston.

 

MIDWEST- #1 seed Kansas has an easy path to San Antonio; the Jayhawks play the first weekend in Wichita and the Regional is in Omaha.  What-they couldn’t put the Final Four in Kansas City? 

Bold-New Mexico State ranks fifth in the nation in rebounding margin and San Diego is a short trip from Las Cruces. Aztecs guard Zach Lofton averaged 24 points per game during the WAC Tournament.

Fold-Rhode Island lost three of four entering the Atlantic 10 Tournament, could have lost to VCU, should have lost to St. Joe’s and did lose to Davidson.  The trend continues against the Sooners Trae Young.

Gold- Michigan State and Duke both were #1 during the regular season, but the bracket is once again set up for Kansas.  For the record last year the Jayhawks played the first weekend in Tulsa before losing in the regional at Kansas City.

So much for the “Beltway Basketball Bonanza”.  None of the schools in and around the beltway made the NCAA Tournament- and the area is Marchless for the first time since 1978.  Not even an NIT bid!  So the as the winter of our discontent concludes…we move on to being interested observers of the Madness.

Atlantic 10 Tournament Thumbnails- despite being one of those five-day affairs that are the result of leagues ballooning to 14+ teams where fans don’t get to see the #1 team in the conference until the seventh game of the week, the A-10 put on a pretty good show at Capital One Arena.  Eleven of the 13 games were competitive and only the Davidson-Saint Louis Friday night 3 vs 6 game was bad from the beginning.  While the four local schools didn’t reach the weekend, each team posted a victory before being bounced.  And we got a nail-biter of a victory by Davidson on Sunday where the Wildcats won despite going over 13 minutes without a basket.  Deservedly, three schools advance to the Big Dance (truth be told I was a little nervous about St. Bonaventure after their semifinal loss).  And while the media dining wasn’t as elegant as two years ago when the ACC rolled into town (nobody does the tournament like the Cadillac of Conferences), it was MUCH better than the Big Ten last March.  Here’s hoping we get the Atlantic 10 back in Washington sooner rather than later.

Selection Show Thoughts- well, it was definitely different.  TBS took the reins and kind of fell flat, from a studio audience that wasn’t necessary to naming the at-large teams in alphabetical order.  Hopefully that’s a one-year experiment.  It doesn’t help that they force announcers on us who don’t cover the college game and expect us to buy into their expertise.  Would you take Jim Spanarkel or Bill Raftery seriously if they jumped on board for the NBA Playoffs?  The easy solution for this would be if TBS simply had a game of the week (hello, Southeast Conference).  You could rotate Charles & Kenny in with a regular college hoops analyst in the studio, have Ernie’s March backup be the primary host and voila–Turner could swat down any accusations about how they don’t devote one second of effort until March.

Bracket Racket- I was surprised to see a 15-loss Alabama, an Oklahoma team that lost 11 of its last 15 games and a Syracuse squad that went 8-10 in the ACC (and that’s with two wins over Pitt) make the field.  Who was robbed?  Oklahoma State went 2-1 against the Sooners and swept Kansas.  USC finished second in the Pac-12 and played in the conference championship game.  Middle Tennessee and Saint Mary’s were sent to the NIT despite rolling up gaudy win totals.

Planting Seeds- nothing really egregious, although it is amusing to see North Carolina and Duke no matter where they finish in the national rankings find their way to a #2 seed.  Midwest #1 Kansas starts in Wichita and plays the regional at Omaha?  Just remember last year the Jayhawks lost in Kansas City.  Overall number one Virginia has a less than appetizing potential Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky or Arizona.  The biggest question is how will the four Big Ten schools in the bracket fare with at least ten days off- and Ohio State will take to the court Thursday having played just once in 20 days.

Destination Dayton, or Here Comes the First Four!- at least they’re not referring to it as the “first round” anymore.  Somehow there is sanity somewhere in the NCAA.  Eight schools fly to the middle of the country to play one game…and then four of them fly to other cities to play two days later.  At least three of the four cities aren’t too far from Dayton:  Pittsburgh, Detroit and Nashville are all short hops (Dallas being the exception).  Part of being in the tournament is BEING IN THE TOURNAMENT.  That means rubbing shoulders with the other members of the sub-regional.  In a perfect world we’d have only 64 teams in the tournament;  in a world I wouldn’t mind I’d settle for sending the two play-in schools to that weekend’s subregional site while still having them play there on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Coming up Wednesday- Bold, Fold and Gold Picks…