Inside the NL East Standings: Like a Stone

Inside the NL East Standings: Like a Stone

Like a stone, as in the Phillies' playoff hopes are sinking like one. Of course they're not finished, but this is as bad as things have been. Four games under .500 is the furthest below the mark the Fightins have fallen all season, last reaching this low point after a 2-1 loss against San Diego on May 12. The last time they were 8.5 back was June 1... 2007.

Meanwhile, the Nationals own their largest lead of the season in the NL East at three games, and they are starting to build a case for legitimacy. Washington is 13-6 over the past 19, winning six of seven to top it off. Their success prompts a new question: no, not are the Phillies out of it, but at what point does the immediate focus shift to a Wild Card berth?

'07 stands out because, as everybody knows, "the team to beat" went on to win the division that year. However, their remarkable run to the playoffs was aided in great part by their foe at the time, the New York Mets, whose epic collapse enabled the Phils to sneak in on the final day of the season. The Mets watched like helpless bystanders as a seven-game lead melted away over little more than two weeks in September.

It could happen to anyone, I suppose, including the Nationals. There's a big difference in 2012 though, that being Washington is more like Philadelphia in '07 than the present-day Phillies are. Young, hungry, and eager to prove they belong, there's a lot of baseball left to play, but they don't appear to be going anywhere without a fight.

Perhaps the greatest difference is what, or whom, is driving each team? The catalyst for the Nationals during their recent surge has been Bryce Harper, who over the past 19 games has seen his batting average rise from .230 to .295, to go along with 18 runs, four home runs, and 19 RBI. The Phillies, what's left of them anyway, all seem to be asleep at the wheel, and if you're expecting Chase Utley or Ryan Howard to serve as a spark in a similar manner, we're talking about 30-somethings coming off of injuries, not a 19-year-old perennial All Star-in-the-making.

The answer to our question at the top depends on how you feel about the rest of the clubs in the East, but the time has come to admit the Nats could be a force to be reckoned with this year. None of this matters if the Phillies don't start to pick up the pieces themselves, but even if they turn the ship around and fast, they may have given Washington too big of a head start.

Twins (24-35)

Minnesota spent a good portion of the early part of the season as the worst team in baseball, and still own the worst record in the AL, but I wouldn't be chalking up Phils victories just yet. The Twins are 9-3 in their last 12, and have been playing at a plus-.500 clip since mid-May. Theyve been feeding off a lower class of opponents, but it's not like the Fightins are vastly better right now.

The difference for Minnesota has been at the plate, specifically with a young player named Ben Revere. Revere bounced up and down between the big club and the minors, but since his call-up on May 17, he's been one of the more productive hitters in the league. The 24-year-old centerfielder leads the club with a .327 average and nine stolen bases, and for the month of June, he cracks the top five for hits and runs in the American League.

Pitching is their downfall though. The Twins have the worst ERA in the league, and the only starter in their rotation with an ERA under 4.00 is Scott Diamond, who is 5-1 with a 1.61 ERA. Naturally, the Phils will catch the 25-year-old rookie in Game 3.

Blue Jays (31-30)

Toronto has taken a roller-coaster ride to it's .500-ish record. Ranking third in the AL in run production, and second in home runs, the Jays have the ability to break out for double-digit runs on any given night. Their dangerous lineup is powered by RF Jose Bautista and DH Edwin Encarnacion, who are both tied for fourth with an identical 17 home runs and 44 RBI -- though Bautista is more boom or bust, sporting a .228 average this season.

The Blue Jays haven't been able to get consistent production out of their pitching staff though. Unlike the Twins and Orioles, they're not littered with starters who have astronomical earned run averages, but they are lacking that dominant presence. If you can get to those guys, Toronto owns one of the worst bullpens in the league, currently ranked 13th in the AL.

On deck: vs. Colorado, vs. Tampa Bay, vs. Pittsburgh, @ Miami

Penn State's signature win over Ohio State has it feeling it's back on map

Penn State's signature win over Ohio State has it feeling it's back on map

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – In another day and time, the late John Facenda — the voice of NFL Films and the very “Voice of God,” as he came to be known — described Marcus Allen “running with the night” while scoring a particularly memorable touchdown for the Raiders in a Super Bowl victory over Washington.

On Saturday, another Marcus Allen went soaring into the night, not to mention Penn State lore.

A blocked field goal by the Nittany Lions’ junior safety resulted in a go-ahead 60-yard TD return by teammate Grant Haley, as PSU upset No. 2 Ohio State in Beaver Stadium, 24-21 (see story). That led to the team’s fans, dressed appropriately for a White Out, to storm the field, and led to the kind of emotions that hadn’t been felt on campus in a long, long time.

“This is for everybody,” coach James Franklin said.

The Langhorne native talked about the game being “a big step in the right direction” as far as healing a community wounded by the Jerry Sandusky child sexual-abuse scandal. He talked, with tears in his eyes, about the death of his brother-in-law four days earlier.

Yet he didn’t wish to discuss whether it was the kind of signature victory he needed to propel the program back toward prominence (or, for that matter, ensure his job security).

“That’s for you (media) guys, all that signature stuff,” he said, adding that he “didn’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the big picture.”

Rather, he said, “I just want to enjoy tonight.”

Understandable, since the Lions, 5-2 after their third straight victory this season, beat a ranked team for the first time since 2013 (No. 14 Wisconsin), beat a team ranked in the top five for the first time since 1999 (No. 4 Arizona) and earned a victory over their highest-ranked opponent since knocking off No. 1 Notre Dame in 1990.

PSU also snapped a 20-game road winning streak on the part of the Buckeyes (7-1). Seventeen of those victories had come in Big Ten play.

Few people saw it coming, though middle linebacker Jason Cabinda said that amid a sleepless Friday night at the team hotel, he and his roommate, fellow ‘backer Manny Bowen, allowed themselves to dream.

“We were just talking about how great it would be to pull this off,” he said, “and how we believed we could pull this off, and how it would be like writing history.”

It was already etched upon the pages of Brandon Bell’s mind.

“This was no fluke,” the senior linebacker said. “This is what we train for. This is what we go out there and play for. Obviously everybody is (saying) we shocked the world, but this is what you expect. Or what I expect.”

Bell, playing for the first time since the season’s second week because of a leg injury, had a career-high 19 tackles and one of his team’s six sacks. Cabinda, playing for the first time since the opener because of a hand injury, had 12 tackles and a sack of his own. Bowen added 11 stops, and defensive end Garrett Sickels, suspended for the first half for violating a team rule, had career highs of nine tackles, 3½ tackles for loss and 2½ sacks.

“Maybe,” Franklin said, “I should suspend him for the first half for the season.”

With Cabinda and Bell back, the Lions were more aggressive on defense than they had been, more varied. Yet the game seemed to be getting away from them when Ohio State built a 21-7 lead through three quarters.

J.T. Barrett, the Buckeyes’ splendid quarterback, had thrown for one touchdown, Curtis Samuel had busted off a 71-yard run for another and PSU’s repeated special-teams blunders (a blocked field goal, a fumbled punt and a bad snap on a punt) had left the Lions staring up at a team that had won its previous 78 games when leading by 14 points or more in the fourth quarter.

OSU had, however, been extended to overtime the previous weekend at Wisconsin, while PSU had a bye, two things that might very well have contributed to all that happened next. You had Lions QB Trace McSorley capping a brisk 90-yard drive with a scoring run early in the final period. And freshman linebacker Cam Brown blocking a punt (even though the block wasn’t on) to set up Tyler Davis’ field goal, cutting the gap to 21-17 with 9:33 left.

Then Allen blocked Tyler Durbin’s 45-yard field goal attempt as well, the first time since 2007 the Lions had rejected two kicks in the same game. Haley collected the rebound and set sail down the left sideline.

Durbin and holder Cameron Johnston gave chase, and Johnston, the punter, closed the gap on Haley, one of the fastest guys on Penn State’s team.

“I told him, ‘If you would have gotten caught by the kicker I never would have let you live that down,’” McSorley said.

Never mind that — Haley admitted he would have never forgiven himself.

He managed to make it the distance, though, and after Ohio State’s final drive ended with a pair of sacks, PSU had the victory.

When the gun sounded several Lions sprinted toward the student section at the south end of the stadium and performed their own version of the Lambeau Leap. And as the fans spilled out onto the field, two male spectators turned to each other high up in the west stands.

“We’re back in business,” one said to the other.

That seemed to be the feeling in the locker room, too.

“It’s just a game that put Penn State back on the map,” Haley said. “We needed that signature win, and we did it tonight.”

All because Marcus Allen soared, and took everyone else along with him.

Flyers Notes: Ivan Provorov bounces back with help from Shayne Gostisbehere

Flyers Notes: Ivan Provorov bounces back with help from Shayne Gostisbehere

Shayne Gostisbehere has been through it before.
The ups and downs of a rookie season. Although his season a year ago was mostly up and up as a Calder Trophy finalist.
Nonetheless, Gostisbehere felt badly for 19-year-old Ivan Provorov following that minus-5 performance in Chicago on Tuesday and then another minus effort in the home-opening loss to Anaheim on Thursday.
So "Ghost" had a talk with his Russian counterpart about life on the blue line.
“He was down after a few games,” Gostisbehere said. “I didn’t really tell him much other than, ‘Hey, we’ve got 79 more of these.’ I told him to keep his head up and he’ll get over it. 
“He’s a hell of a player and sometimes you don’t get all of the bounces. He’s a great player as you guys could see. He had a great bounce-back game tonight.”
Indeed he did during Saturday’s 6-3 win over Carolina (see story).
Provorov says when the play seems slow to him, he knows he’s focused on what has to be done.

“Once you get comfortable, you get used to the speed and the game slows down for you,” he said. “With every game, I’m getting more comfortable and trying to make more plays.”
Provorov set up two critical early Flyers goals with two assists during a plus-2 outing that led to a 3-2 lead in the second period. The Flyers didn’t trail thereafter.
Both his shots went right to the net. Several other times this week, he had his point shots blocked.
“You try to read off how much time you have and stuff like that, how fast the player is coming at you,” he said. “You’re trying to [decide] what kind of shot to take.”
Provorov admitted some of his teammates were giving him encouragement.
“I think everyone is going to have tough games, it’s only his third game,” Gostisbehere said. “You have to give the guy a break. It’s tough to be in that position, he’s 19 years old.  
“He’s a kid, it’s tough. I was 22 so it was a little different, I’m a little older and everyone is going to have those tough games, but it’s how you bounce back.”
Provorov also had two hits and four blocked shots.
Scoring streaks
Matt Read and Wayne Simmonds both extended their goal-scoring streaks to four games. They are each one shy of their career-high — five games.
The last Flyer to have a four-game goal-scoring streak was Claude Giroux, who did so from March 19 to 28, 2015, with five goals.
According to Elias Sports Bureau, the last time the Flyers had two players concurrently on goal-scoring streaks of four games or more was 1993, when Josef Beranek had an eight-game streak from Oct. 9 to 23 and Eric Lindros had a six-game streak from Oct. 12 to 26.
Read is truly enjoying the best start of his career.
“It made hockey a little bit more fun,” he said. “The last couple of years have been frustrating. You are battling as much as you can out there to try and get better.
“Scoring a couple of goals here early gets the confidence high. I enjoy going on the ice every shift and giving it your all and trying to make this team better every shift.”