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)

Eagles Film Review: Carson Wentz's improvisation pays off big

Eagles Film Review: Carson Wentz's improvisation pays off big

Carson Wentz takes pride in not letting plays die easily. 

In Sunday’s 34-3 win over the Steelers, one play he didn’t let die ended up being the back-breaker in the blowout. 

We’re, of course, talking about the 73-yard touchdown pass to Darren Sproles at the 13:08 mark in the third quarter. Coming into the second half, the Eagles had a 10-point lead, but this touchdown pushed it to a 20-3 advantage and the rout was on. This play was a tone-setter (see story)

“That’s something that we talk about a lot,” Wentz said after the game. “We always say that a play is never dead. I like to make plays when we need to and everyone just does a great job of getting open in those situations.”

This was the first big off-schedule play Wentz has hit during his three weeks as the team’s starter, but the signs were there. In the Chicago game, there were several times where he showed his ability to extend plays. We broke them down in a film review last week (see story).

Throughout the week, Wentz had been compared to Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. One of the reasons was their shared ability to extend plays and make something happen. Big Ben showed his ability in the first quarter and almost connected on a huge touchdown pass to Markus Wheaton in the back of the end zone, but the receiver couldn’t pull it in. 

When Wentz got his shot later in the game, Sproles was able to pull it in, then make something happen with his feet. 

“I saw Carson scrambling this way,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Darren was literally right in front of me and when I saw him wheel, my first reaction was to find the sideline to see if he stepped out to be quite honest.  He hadn’t, and Carson just — it was like in slow motion — floated that ball up the sideline and Darren did the rest from there. It was a tremendous play from those two individuals. I guess the last thing I did is I always look back to make sure there are no flags on the ground on those long plays.”

There were no flags. Touchdown. Game. 

Let’s take a closer look at the play: 

Wentz is in shotgun with Sproles in the backfield with him. The Eagles come out with three-wide on the far side of the field and a lot of space on the near side. 

Stephon Tuitt, who actually had a pretty good game against the Eagles, takes this route to the quarterback. When he gets to left guard Allen Barbre, Barbre either didn’t see him or didn’t react quickly enough. 

While Sproles is still running his short out, Wentz feels the pressure and is able to step up through the hole created by Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks. As soon as he makes it through, Wentz still has his eyes downfield. 

Now Wentz is through the hole and sees Sproles finishing his out-route. This is when Wentz, on the run, motions to Sproles to take off. This is something we’ve seen Wentz do a few times during his three weeks as Eagles quarterback. 

Wentz was left with a tough decision here. He could have run for 10, maybe even 15 yards. It was wide open, but he decided to try to make a play with his arm instead. 

“I always want to be a thrower first,” he said. “Even when a play breaks down, I’m always looking [to throw] because that’s where the big plays are happening. If I scramble I might get 5, 10, 15, 20 yards, but I’m not that fast. I always want to get it to the guys that can make plays. We always want to make plays when they’re there, and that’s what happened.”

With the line of scrimmage at the 27, Wentz has enough awareness to run horizontally to make sure he didn’t cross. And as soon as Pittsburgh safety Mike Mitchell takes that first step toward him, Wentz sees how much room Sproles has to work with. 

Ryan Shazier, who was covering Sproles on the play, froze and then started to step toward Wentz too. He said he thought the quarterback crossed the line of scrimmage, but Wentz was aware enough to stay behind.  

Once Sproles catches the ball in open space, he begins to do Sproles things. Defensive back Sean Davis took a bad angle on him and once he gets close, the veteran turns it inside. Davis said he was trying to buy time for the rest of his defense to get there and stop Sproles. It didn’t work. 

“Man, it’s Sproles!” receiver Nelson Agholor said. “Did you think he was going to get tackled?”

While he’s blocking downfield, Dorial Green-Beckham actually trips himself up and does a somersault. But it didn’t matter — Sproles didn’t need a great block. He pretty much did it himself. 

“Anytime that you can put it in the hands of [Sproles] something special can happen on any play, and he did the rest of it,” Wentz said. 

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Travis Konecny leaves impression with vets in Flyers' preseason win

Travis Konecny leaves impression with vets in Flyers' preseason win

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Michael Raffl had just finished playing alongside Travis Konecny, the 19-year-old kid that has Flyers fans abuzz about the now and future.

Yet for Raffl, he wasn’t thinking forward. Instead, he was looking back.

“Yeah, well, I couldn’t do that when I was 19, that’s for sure,” the 27-year-old said smiling, eyes wide open. “No, it’s impressive, he’s a really, really good hockey player.”

Konecny had that resounding affect Wednesday night at the PPL Center, recording a goal and an assist while leading the Flyers to a 2-0 preseason win over the Devils (see 10 observations).

He dazzled with speed and shiftiness.

He showed off vision and smarts.

When he touched the puck, he had everyone’s attention.

Paired with Raffl and Brayden Schenn in a game featuring mostly prospects, the 2015 first-round pick made the molding of Ron Hextall’s roster that much more difficult. With the general manager looking on, the highly touted winger started fast before making his imprint during a span of just four minutes and 34 seconds in the second period.

First, he redirected a blast by Andrew MacDonald to hand the Flyers a 1-0 lead. Not long after, the 5-foot-10, 184-pounder deceived the defense to find Raffl right in front off a backdoor pass for a 2-0 advantage.

“We had a cycle play going and he had a nice fake up top there and I was just going to the net,” Raffl said. “Somehow I was all by myself and he saw me, put a perfect pass on my tape and I just went around the goalie and put it in.”

Following his first goal, Konecny nearly tacked on another less than a minute later when he appeared to hit the crossbar on a shot. He also flirted with a few more assists.

“I think I just played relaxed,” Konecny said. “I came into the game tonight trying not to do too much and just keep things simple. The main thing for me was getting pucks out of the zone, so I think I did that well tonight and hopefully I can keep building on it.”

Relieving pucks from the zone isn’t a real problem when you possess the speed and skill of Konecny, who racked up 101 points last season at the junior level.

At just 19, that’s where he’ll have to return if he doesn’t crack the Flyers’ roster.

With cuts already made and more coming, that sometimes is on Konecny’s mind.

“It weighs on you a little bit. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about it and it’s definitely the time I need to step up and make sure I’m playing good hockey,” Konecny said. “And just earning another day — that’s just the way I’m looking at it. Every day I wake up and just work hard and move forward from there.

“I think everyone comes into camp and tries to give them (management) a reason not to send you back and make it hard on them.”

Wednesday night didn’t hurt his chances.

“He played a good hockey game,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “Had an impact offensively. He did a pretty good job. There’s some youthful mistakes in there, but overall, he had a real good night tonight playing with Raf and Schenner.”

Placing Konecny with two capable NHL forwards offered the Canadian an opportunity to prove what he could do if he was in fact on the big club.

“We played well together,” Konecny said. “I think from the start we just had a lot of communication, we talked in the room, in warmups, we all knew what we were going to do throughout the game and in certain scenarios.”

If anything, Konecny left an impression on Raffl.

“He’s a very smart player,” Raffl said. “Once he has the puck, he makes smart decisions with it. It was very easy to play with him out there. He plays a mature game and I really enjoyed it.”

Time will tell if more enjoyment is in store come Oct. 14.

Loose pucks
Anthony Stolarz and Alex Lyon combined for the shutout. Stolarz started and made 11 saves over 29:23, while Lyon played 30:37 and stopped seven shots. “I like both of our guys tonight,” Hakstol said. “Stolie did a good job, he made a difference in this game in the first 10 minutes, those two or three really good saves there. Then Alex came in halfway through, which isn’t an easy thing to do and was ready to go and did his job.” … Schenn, MacDonald and defensive prospect Robert Hagg finished with an assist apiece. … With the roster currently standing at 49, the Flyers expect to make 15 cuts on Thursday. … Defenseman Nick Schultz is out four to seven days with a lower-body injury suffered in Tuesday night’s preseason game. ... The Flyers are off Thursday before likely practicing Friday ahead of Saturday's preseason game at 7 p.m. against the Bruins at the Wells Fargo Center.