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)

In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

In long-awaited NBA debut, Joel Embiid treats Sixers fans to a show

The crowd erupted as Joel Embiid stepped to the free throw line. They chanted a phrase Embiid has been repeating for the past two years, a fitting welcome to his NBA debut.

“That was great,” Embiid said after the Sixers' 103-97 loss to the Thunder on Wednesday in the season opener (see Instant Replay). “That’s my motto, 'Trust the process.'”

After two years of rehabbing foot injuries, Embiid has his first regular-season game behind him. Embiid scored a team-high 20 points, shooting 6 for 16 from the field, 1 for 3 from long range and 7 for 8 from the line. He also recorded seven rebounds, two blocks, four turnovers and four fouls in over 22 minutes. 

“The beginning I was nervous, but once you make that first shot, it just goes away,” he said. “The fans were so into the game that it was fun. I love having fun.”

Sixers head coach Brett Brown enjoyed watching Embiid on the court as much as the big man liked being on it. Brown has seen the 7-foot-2 center grow and develop during his rehab. Finally, he was able to utilize his versatile skills in a real game setting.

“I can't say this loud enough,” Brown said. “For the city to be rewarded with a player that we all understand has unique gifts, special gifts, for him to go through all the things he has been through and play like he did on opening night, the city deserves it. Most importantly, he deserves it.”

Now that Embiid has been cleared to play, he would like to do so for longer periods of time. He began the preseason at 12 minutes and was increased to 20 in segmented spurts for opening night. Even though he exceeded that limit by over two minutes, Embiid is itching to be cleared to play more extensively. 

“It sucks,” Embiid said. “I feel like I could have played more but you know you’ve got to trust the process, got to trust those guys. If I have my minute restriction at 20 minutes, I guess I’m going to go with that. But obviously I want to play more and more and I think it can help the team better. But they have a plan for me and I’ve got to follow it.”

Embiid has maintained he wants to be a clutch player. Brown looked to him toward the end of the game as the Thunder pulled ahead late in the final quarter. He drained a fadeaway jumper to tie the game at 97 apiece with 50.7 to go. 

Later trailing by four with 10 seconds left, the Sixers went to Embiid. While he was whistled for an offensive foul, Brown was glad to have a go-to unlike in years past. 

“You have a target,” Brown said. “We tried to get the ball to him a lot. … By and large, to have somebody like Joel, where the mystery is solved like, 'What do you do?' You get him the ball as much as you can.”

The more the Sixers found Embiid, the more the Thunder had to try to defend him. Thunder head coach Billy Donovan knew what his team was going up against. He watched Embiid as a high schooler and coached against him during his tenure at Florida. 

“He’s gifted and skilled,” Donovan said. “It was probably our guys' first time seeing him … I knew the talent, the gifts. The one thing with him is, he’s got great footwork. He’s hard to guard because he’s herky-jerky. He moves. He’s got a lot of [Hakeem] Olajuwon to him.”

Opening night had been two years in the making. Even though the Sixers didn't win, the significance of the evening didn't disappoint. 

"I thought this moment was going to be special," Embiid said, "and it was just great."

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

Best of NBA: Davis' 50 points not enough in Pelicans' loss to Nuggets

NEW ORLEANS -- Jusuf Nurkic scored 23 points, Will Barton added 22, and the Denver Nuggets survived a dominant performance by Anthony Davis to defeat the New Orleans Pelicans 107-102 in both teams' regular season opener Wednesday night.

Davis had 50 points, 16 rebounds, seven steals, five assists and four blocks. His production helped New Orleans trim a deficit as large as 14 late in the second quarter down to two points in the waning minutes. He simply didn't have enough help.

The rest of the Pelicans combined to shoot 21 of 58. Tim Frazier scored 15 for the Pelicans. E'Twaun Moore added 10 points, but missed a 3-point attempt that could have tied it with 24 seconds left.

Danilo Gallinari scored 15 for Denver and Wilson Chandler added 12 points (see full recap).

Celtics top Nets in Horford's home debut
BOSTON -- Isaiah Thomas had 25 points and nine assists, Jae Crowder added 21 points and Al Horford pitched in 11 in his Boston debut on Wednesday night as the Celtics survived a late scare to beat the Brooklyn Nets 122-117 in their season opener.

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 21 for Brooklyn, including a 3-pointer to make it 120-117 with 47 seconds left after the Nets erased most of a 23-point deficit against the Boston bench. But he missed one with a chance to tie it after Joe Harris intercepted Thomas' cross-court pass, and the Celtics were able to hold on.

Justin Hamilton came off the bench to score 19 points and grab 10 rebounds for the Nets in coach Kenny Atkinson's debut (see full recap).

Turner's opening act leads Pacers past Mavs in OT
INDIANAPOLIS -- Myles Turner scored 30 points, tied his career high with 16 rebounds and made a 3-pointer with 1:18 left in overtime to start an 8-0 run that allowed the Indiana Pacers to close out a 130-121 victory Wednesday night over the Dallas Mavericks.

Three-time All-Star Paul George added 25 points, including another 3 with 55 seconds left to seal Indiana's fifth season-opening win in six years.

Deron Williams scored 25 points, while J.J. Barea and Dirk Nowitzki each added 22 as the Mavs lost their fifth straight in the series. They still haven't won in Indianapolis since February 2014.

Dallas didn't tie the score or take a lead until the fourth quarter, yet still forced overtime when Harrison Barnes' open 3-pointer made it 115-all with 2.3 seconds left.

Turner could have won it with a long buzzer-beating 3, but it bounced off the back of the rim (see full recap).