Inside the Standings: Chasing the Nationals Edition

Inside the Standings: Chasing the Nationals Edition

When we last checked in, the upstart Washington Nationals were in a prime position to grow their lead over Philadelphia in the NL East. The Phillies managed to salavage a 5-5 road trip on the west coast, but that wasn't enough to keep pace, as the Nats have gone 7-2 with a favorable schedule in the meantime. Their five-game lead is now twice what it was less than two weeks ago.
The Fightins should have opportunities to make up some ground over the next few series though. Here's a look a the slate ahead.
vs. Cubs (6-13)The Phillies are welcomed home by the Chicago Cubs, a four-game set against one of the worst teams in the National League. Nobody expected much out of the Cubs this season, and as you can see, they are not disappointing prognosticators.
Their offense is even less potent than the Phils, belting just seven home runs -- the lowest total in Major League Baseball by four -- and their OPS is in the thank at .628, second lowest in the league. Several players in their everyday lineup are still hitting below the Mendoza Line.
Pitching has been an issue as well, where they currently rank 14th out of 16 with a 4.37 ERA. That number might be turning around, however. Chicago got mostly quality starts the last time through the rotation, allowing 2.8 runs per game in their last five, three of which were wins. This might be a tight series for the Phillies after all.
@ Braves (12-7)Right back on the road to face off with a red-hot opponent. Since beginning the season 0-4, Atlanta has been on an absolute tear, perhaps sensing the NL East is up for grabs for the first time in years. The Braves are 12-3 in their last 15, with series wins over Houston, Milwaukee, New York, Arizona, and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
They are getting it done with the most productive offense in the NL, leading the league with 101 runs -- 10 more than the second-place St. Louis Cardinals -- although they may be cooling off. The Braves are scoring 3.4 per game in their last five, which was still good enough to earn three victories, but a huge drop-off from the previous four when they were averaging 10.2 per game... for real.
Atlanta's pitching staff looks like the real deal again, especially if Jair Jurrjens can figure it out. Jurrjens is off to an awful start, with a 9.37 ERA in four appearances. He hasn't lasted deeper than five innings in any game this season, and he made his earliest exit yet in his last outing when he couldn't record an out in the fourth.
@ Nationals (14-5)The Nats have the best record in the National League, and are one game behind Texas for the tops in MLB, but the difficulty level is about to rise for Washington. They face their first big test of the season beginning tonight with the LA Dodgers, a meeting of the two division leaders. They also host the Diamondbacks before the Phillies come to town, which is when things will really start to get interesting.
Philly will be trying to make up ground against one of the best rotations in baseball. The Nationals have given up the fewest runs in baseball, with a team ERA of 2.20, while striking out the most batters with 169, or almost nine per game. Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, and Ross Detwiler are all 2-0, and along with Jordan Zimmerman, the highest ERA among the four starters is 1.52.
Offensively, they're not much better than the Phillies. They draw walks exactly twice as often, but rank toward the bottom of the league in stealing bases. The rest of the numbers are all fairly comparable, so this series figures to come down to pitching, pitching, and pitching.
vs. Mets (11-8)The Phils lost two of three off of third-place New York a couple weeks back, and the Mets have been on a roller coaster ever since. They dropped their next two series to Atlanta and San Francisco, but at the moment, they are riding a sweep of the Marlins in which they held Miami to four runs over three games.
What seems to be lacking for the Mets is any sense of consistency at the plate. Their pitching ranks in the middle of the pack as far as preventing runs from coming across, but their offense simply isn't a whole lot more productive than the Phillies -- surprising considering four of their everyday players are hitting above .300.
Last time through, New York caught Cliff Lee and Vance Worley on a couple off-games, but you can't count on that every time you play the Phils. But if the Mets find a way to convert their 4th-best on-base percentage in the NL (.328) to more than 66 runs (11th-tied), they could remain in the mix in the NL East for awhile.
On Deck: vs. Padres (3), vs. Astros (2), @ Cubs (2), vs. Red Sox (3), vs. Nationals (3)

Best of NBA: Harden's 38-points fuels Rockets past Bucks

Best of NBA: Harden's 38-points fuels Rockets past Bucks

HOUSTON -- James Harden had 38 points, eight assists and six rebounds, and the Houston Rockets beat the Milwaukee Bucks 111-92 on Wednesday night.

Harden drilled a straightaway 3-pointer with six minutes left to give Houston a 13-point lead and shimmied his shoulders down the court in a celebratory dance as the Bucks called timeout.

After losing three of four, the Rockets regained their form while improving to 17-4 at home this season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 32 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and three blocks for Milwaukee (see full recap).

Rose powers slumping Knicks past Celtics 117-106
BOSTON -- Derrick Rose matched his season high with 30 points, and the slumping New York Knicks beat the Boston Celtics 117-106 on Wednesday night.

New York played without injured starters Kristaps Porzingis and Joakim Noah, but Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Willy Hernangomez each scored 17 points to help make up for their absence. It was just the third win in 14 games for the Knicks.

Isaiah Thomas led Boston with 39 points, his 13th time this season with 30 or more points. Jae Crowder added 21 for the Celtics, who lost for only the fourth time in 17 games.

Al Horford, Boston's big free-agent acquisition during the summer, had five points on 2-of-14 shooting. He was 1 for 8 on 3-point attempts.

Boston closed to 97-96 on Jaylen Brown's two free throws with just under eight minutes to play, but Justin Holiday and Courtney Lee nailed 3-pointers 29 seconds apart, pushing New York's lead back to seven. Rose then capped an 8-0 spree by putting in his own miss after Thomas missed a jumper -- his seventh straight shot that was off (see full recap).

Home cooking: Wiz top Grizz 104-101, 13th win in row in DC
WASHINGTON -- A vastly different team at home, the Wizards won their 13th consecutive game in Washington by edging the Memphis Grizzlies 104-101 Wednesday night behind two late layups from John Wall, who finished with 25 points and 13 assists.

James Ennis III missed a potential tying 3-pointer at the buzzer for Memphis.

The Wizards are just 4-13 on the road but now 18-6 at home, where they've compiled their longest winning streak since a 15-game run in the 1988-89 season.

Washington never trailed and led by as many as 19 points in the first half, then held on after a 10-0 run by Memphis made it a two-point game with 2 1/2 minutes left. That's when Wall took over, scoring on consecutive drives (see full recap).

Walker, Hibbert lead Hornets past Blazers 107-85
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kemba Walker scored 23 points, Roy Hibbert provided a huge boost off the bench, and the Charlotte Hornets stopped a five-game slide with a 107-85 victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday night.

Nicolas Batum added 17 points for the Hornets, who limited the Trail Blazers to 35 percent shooting and snapped an eight-game streak of allowing at least 100 points. But it was the 7-foot-2 Hibbert who stole the show.

Hibbert, who came in averaging 5.2 points per game, had a season-high 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting.

Damian Lillard scored 21 points and C.J. McCollum had 18 for Portland, which has lost three straight and 16 of 22 since Dec. 5 (see full recap).

Penn State falls to Indiana, 78-75, on buzzer 3-pointer

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Penn State falls to Indiana, 78-75, on buzzer 3-pointer

BOX SCORE

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Shep Garner gathered his teammates along Penn State's bench to remind them they needed one more stop to head to overtime.

Indiana's James Blackmon was ready to head home, however.

Blackmon took an in-bounds pass with less than five seconds to go, sprinted down the court and drained a 3-pointer to lift the Hoosiers to a 78-75 win over Penn State on Wednesday night.

Blackmon, Thomas Bryant and Robert Johnson all scored 17 points for the Hoosiers (13-6, 3-3 Big Ten) who survived a late Penn State rally.

"They definitely grew up," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "It wasn't easy, but they definitely earned the victory. It would've been a shame if they hadn't gotten this win because they earned it."

Tony Carr scored a career-best 24 points and Garner added 15 for the Nittany Lions (11-8, 3-3) who trailed by 14 with 9:19 left. Garner brought Penn State within striking distance with a 3-pointer that cut it to 75-73 with 39 seconds to play.

It was the second straight win for the Hoosiers (13-6, 3-3 Big Ten) who took control by halftime and led the entire second half until a pair of Lamar Stevens free throws tied the game with less than five seconds left.

"I'm really proud of the kids, the way they fought back," Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. "I felt like Penn State really hurt Penn State tonight, missed layups, little things. If we shoot better from the free-throw line, maybe the outcome's different."

Memories of Watford
There's a good reason Blackmon's shot was strikingly similar to the one Christian Watford sank at the buzzer to beat then-No. 1 Kentucky in 2011.

"It was the same play-call," Crean said. "But we got open differently. Usually we run off a screen but in this case we knew they'd switch it so James did a great job of setting it up."

Penn State coaches and players knew they'd have to defend a similar play, Chambers made note of it in his scouting report, but Blackmon was able to slip past Josh Reaves at midcourt and pull up over Julian Moore to hit the winning basket.

Rim un-protected
Indiana didn't have as big of a challenge on the glass with Penn State's designated rim-protector Mike Watkins in early foul trouble. Penn State's leading rebounder played just 13 minutes and finished with no rebounds.

The Hoosiers won the battle on the glass 37-33 and Penn State made just 21 of 31 free throws.

Hurt Hoosier
Indiana lost OG Anunoby on the final play of the first half to a right knee injury. The sophomore forward came down after battling for an offensive rebound and crumpled to the floor where he clutched at his right knee before trainers helped him slowly to the locker room. He did not return.

Anunoby started eight games and was tied for sixth in the Big Ten with 1.4 steals per game.

Crean said Anunoby would be evaluated when the team returned to Bloomington.

The big picture
Indiana: The Hoosiers entered Wednesday's game having lost five of their last eight. They'll have a chance to gain momentum with four of their next five against middle-of-the-pack Big Ten foes before a trip to Madison to take on No. 17 Wisconsin on Feb. 5.

Penn State: The Nittany Lions' inability to put a full game together has to be grating on coach Patrick Chambers. Even in their last win against No. 24 Minnesota, the Nittany Lions were out of sorts early before a late rally paid off. They were competitive early and late in this one but sluggish and mistake-prone midway through when Indiana took over.

Up next
Indiana hosts Michigan State on Saturday.

Penn State plays at No. 22 Purdue on Saturday