Jordan Zimmermann’s continued emergence as a dominant starting pitcher has become a Pivotal Play for the Washington Nationals.
In a season where Washington has dealt with an abundance of early-season adversity, Zimmermann has been the one steadying influence for the 21-19 club. The rest of the club’s starting pitchers – even former No. 1 overall pick Stephen Strasburg – have had their struggles.
And offensively the entire season has been one frustrating compilation of at-bats, with Danny Espinosa and Tyler Moore struggling to produce and regulars like Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, and Wilson Ramos taking turns nursing injuries.
Through all the struggles and frustration, Zimmermann has been a radiantly shining star and comforting presence, showing up every fifth day to deliver another ace performance to make everybody on the team feel better. He has become medicine for a club that has been good, but not nearly as dominate as the pundits were expecting.
The 27-year-old pitcher has become one of the league’s most excellent starters, working to a 7-1 record while posting a 1.69 ERA after eight starts. The winner of one-third of Washington’s games so far, Zimmermann is pitch-efficient and proficient at saving the Nationals’ bullpen; he’s hurled at least seven innings in six of his last seven outings.
Zimmermann’s seven victories are the most among National League pitchers and his 1.69 ERA ranks seventh in the circuit. Only Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright have stockpiled more innings of work than the Washington right-hander, who’s 0.87 WHIP is third-best in baseball.
A former second-round pick who has improved during each of his four-plus seasons in the major leagues, Zimmermann is giving the Nationals what the experts expected Strasburg or lefty, Gio Gonzalez to deliver.
Strasburg is considered one of baseball’s most revered starters because of his plus four-pitch repertoire, widely considered one of the best arsenals in the entire game – but Zimmermann has been better than Strasburg.
Gonzalez finished third in the NL in Cy Young balloting last season. The former Oakland Athletic has been dominant at times and has struggled in a few of his starts. While he’s been a solid member of Washington’s rotation, he hasn’t been Zimmermann.
Sometimes, the lesser known and less-often discussed members of a work place are the most important pieces to an organization’s success. That has certainly been the case for the Nationals so far this season.
Zimmermann takes the mound with far less national exposure and hype than the majority of the pitchers with which he shares a clubhouse. However, all Zimmermann does is post quality starts; one after another, every fifth day – like clockwork.
When the Wisconsin native took the hill in Los Angeles this week he halted a two-game National’s losing streak with a 7.2 inning gem while allowing just two runs. Earlier in the month Zimmermann started in Atlanta, halting a three-game skid while helping the Nationals win their first game against the division-rival Braves in six tries in 2013. In that victory Zimmermann threw eight dominant, shutout innings with eight strikeouts.
Zimmermann has become Mr. Consistency. When things are falling apart, he shows up with a tool belt on ready to fix whatever’s ailing Washington. His eight tremendous starts have been a Pivotal Play this season.
This week’s Pivotal Play is whether the Washington Capitals star-winger Alexander Ovechkin can get back to creating quality scoring opportunities in the team’s ongoing postseason series with the New York Rangers.
If the team’s captain – the NHL’s leading goal-scorer in the regular season and one of the top contenders for the league’s MVP award – is able to re-capture the lamp-lighting ability that carried Washington to a Southeast Division championship, the Capitals will pass the test they’re currently being administered by the underdog-Rangers.
Ovechkin has had a phenomenal season, finishing atop the entire league in goals scored (32), power play tallies (16), goals created (23), and scoring chances (220). After a pair of down seasons, Ovechkin returned to form as one of hockey’s most feared skaters and lethal offensive assassins.
To the 27-year-old Russian’s credit, he began the 2013 postseason as an impact offensive player as well. Ovechkin scored in the Capitals’ game-one win at the Verizon Center, then assisted on the club’s only goal in a thrilling 1-0 overtime triumph in game-two last Saturday.
Through two games, both Washington wins, Ovechkin had tallied multiple points while firing 12 shots on net. He was creating scoring opportunities while also playing a physical brand of hockey that saw him deliver seven big hits in the team’s game-two victory.
But as the series shifted to New York, the Rangers’ defense was able to focus more of its attention on the 230-pound speed-skater, and the result has been a frustrating pair of games.
Ovechkin managed to get a total of three shots on net in games three and four at Madison Square Garden. Not surprisingly, Washington lost both games and that’s the point of this week’s Pivotal Play.
With Ovechkin contributing points and scoring goals, Washington is much more dangerous to its opponents. But when clubs are able to slow him down – like New York did while pulling even in the best-of-seven series with back-to-back wins on Monday and Wednesday night respectively – the Capitals aren’t the same team.
If Ovechkin can elevate his play for an extended playoff stretch, throwing the Capitals on his shoulders like the elite leaders often find a way to do in the postseason, Washington’s two recent losses will be a footnote in the book ultimately written about the 2012-2013’s memorable run.
There is no play more pivotal to the fellas rocking the red than those made by Ovechkin. When Washington gets back to the Verizon Center on Friday evening, they will need the ‘great eight’ to get back to lighting the lamp the way he did all season.
The Washington Capitals turned in this week’s Pivotal Play in their game-one victory over the New York Rangers in the quarterfinal round of the NHL’s Eastern Conference playoffs.
Tied at a goal apiece midway through the second period, Washington faced a 5-on-3 penalty kill for 56 seconds. Had the Rangers have found a way to beat Braden Holtby with a goal while operating with a two-man advantage, the visitors would have taken their second lead of the game while recapturing the momentum of the contest.
Rather than allowing New York to cash in, Washington’s special teams unit came up with one of its most pivotal penalty kills of the season, prohibiting the Rangers from taking control of the game while seizing momentum and reinvigorating a sold-out Verizon Center crowd with every clock-milking dump of the puck across center ice.
The Capitals were forced to kill the 5-on-3 in the wake of a pair of penalties assessed 56 seconds apart – a boarding call on second-line winger Martin Erat and an interference call on third-liner Eric Fehr.
With just under two minutes after Fehr served his time in the penalty box, speed-skating Marcus Johansson got behind New York’s defense for a breakaway tally that gave Washington its first lead of the game. The Capitals wouldn’t relinquish that advantage for the remainder of the evening.
In fact, 46 seconds after Johansson scored the fourth playoff goal of his career, Jason Chimera celebrated his 34th birthday by beating Henrik Lundqvist with a turnaround, off-balance shot the goal-tender never saw.
Both of Washington’s goals led to euphoria inside the Verizon Center, but it was the preceding penalty kill – which kept the score knotted at one – that worked the crowd into a frenzy, turning a nervous Verizon Center into a raucous building.
“Those were some real tough minutes,” Fehr said about the penalty he had to serve. “It felt like a half an hour. The guys did a great job killing it that was a big turning point for us. We killed it and we scored right after, that was the key to the game.”
Washington’s epic penalty kill was particularly impressive based on the team’s struggles in that area during the regular season. The Capitals ended the regular season having posted a 77.9 penalty kill percentage, which ranked 27th among the league’s 30 teams.
But on opening night of Washington’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance, the Caps’ penalty kill was flawless, including that massive 56-second stretch of 5-on-3 hockey.
That crucial stretch fueled the team’s game-one win and that’s why Washington’s penalty killing unit is deserving of this week’s Pivotal Play.
The Washington Redskins will be making this week’s Pivotal Play tonight, when the second and third rounds of the NFL Draft take place in New York City.
The Redskins are the reigning NFC East champions and are coming off a 10-6 season that saw their organization encounter a renaissance led by quarterback Robert Griffin III. While the team’s defense made several big plays during a seven-game winning streak to end the 2012 season, the Redskins enter this weekend’s draft knowing they still need plenty of help in the secondary.
The most pivotal decision Washington can make with its second round selection would be to bolster a defensive backfield that needs more play-making and ball-hawking ability. One of the team’s biggest deficiencies last year was defending the pass, where the Redskins just didn’t have deep enough personnel to provide quality coverage against some of the league’s more prolific passing teams.
The Redskins ranked 30th against the pass last season, allowing 281.9 passing yards per game. What’s worse was that the club’s defense was haunted by big plays, yielding 11 gains of 40 or-more yards – the fifth-worst total in the league.
The team was plagued by poor play at free safety last season and 2012 starter Madieu Williams is still a free agent. Currently, an ideal option as a free safety starter in 2013 does not exist on the team, where many of the team’s problems defending the pass occurred. Washington could dramatically benefit from the addition of a free safety with one of its first picks this weekend.
But in addition to safety, the cornerback position is also in need of quality depth.
Starters Josh Wilson and DeAngelo Hall are not under contract beyond this season, and Cedric Griffin, the team’s third cornerback from a year ago is no longer with the team. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer EJ Biggers was added as a backup. He will compete with a couple of less-experienced corners for playing time behind Hall and Wilson.
While the Redskins did win their first division championship in 13 years, it is important to note that last year’s first-place finishing team was also 3-6 at one point. There are still several areas on the roster in need of improvement, especially in the wake of an offseason that saw Washington handcuffed by an $18 million NFL-enforced salary cap penalty.
The smartest play for the Redskins will be to use one, or both, of their first two draft picks, in the second and third rounds respectively, on defensive backs. If the team is able to add a cornerback and a safety with two of its early selections, it will have selected a secondary duo that will have a chance to contribute in 2013 and perhaps start in future seasons.
The NFL draft is always of massive significance for NFL teams. For a team like the Redskins, who weren’t able to spend the way they would have liked to improve during free agency, this weekend’s draft is even more pivotal to their success than usual.
The Washington Wizards just concluded another disappointing season in which the team lost over 50 games, missing the playoffs for the fifth year straight.
While the team’s fans may be disappointed with the results of the season, there were more positive outcomes and reasons for hope over the past several months than there were in the team’s previous four season losing streak.
This week’s Pivotal Play goes to Wizards point guard, John Wall, who broke through as a difference-making future all-star in Washington this season, showing the promise and play-making ability that made him the NBA’s unrivaled number one draft pick back in 2009.
Wall didn’t just make strides as a pass-first point guard, creating chances to score for his teammates, as well as himself, his biggest improvement this season, but he also grew dramatically as a leader.
Take, for example, his recent comments to Michael Lee of the Washington Post about his contract status.
“You want to get all you can, make your money and that’s what I’m going to do, make as much I can,” Wall told the Post, just days after saying he thought he was good enough to warrant a maximum-contract.
“But I also want to make sure that everything with my teammates is getting better, that my team is getting better. If it’s me making the money I’m making and we’re still losing it’s not fun. You get paid to win, paid more for being in the playoffs. I just love the game and want to win. That’s the main thing.”
Wall, 22, stating that he would take less money if it meant that he would be surrounded with more talent is exuding the type of team-first thinking you need from your franchise players. That quote also goes a long way towards showing that he is aware of his standing with the team and is always thinking about his teammates.
On the court, Wall spent the second half of the season becoming one of the NBA’s most exhilarating point guards to watch. He scored 20 or more points in five of Washington’s first seven April games while posting nine double-doubles in the final month of the season.
For the season, Wall averaged two more points-per-game (18.4) than he ever had before while also dishing out 7.7 assists per competition. He also turned the ball over less (3.25 per game) than he ever had during his four-year NBA career.
At the beginning of this season there were questions about the then-injured point guard’s future as an elite player. Could he be a franchise-altering talent? Was he going to make the players around him better? Could he score enough as a point guard to become an elite player at his position? When you fast forward to April, even after a disappointing year for the Wizards, the answer to all of those questions is now a resounding, “yes.”
This week’s Pivotal Player is John Wall, who has come a long way both on the court and in the locker room since the start of the season.
Now more than ever, the convergence of data analytics and player scouting is allowing professional sports franchises to break new boundaries when it comes to talent acquisition.
This “Moneyball-Style” approach has been embraced by the NFL and has extended into different aspects of the franchises — from using data analytics to drive merchandise sales to injury prevention.
The Washington Nationals recently announced that it is developing a new player evaluation system that combines scouting reports, key statistics and video. The unique system, being designed in partnership with Bloomberg Sports, will allow National’s scouts to access this information seamlessly on mobile devices and lap tops.
“We have a need in our business today to manage data quickly and efficiently to make sure we are maximizing the performance of all our assets on and off the field. No one can help us manage all that data more effectively than Bloomberg Sports,” said Mike Rizzo, Nationals Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations and General Manager, in a recent press release.
As many scouts spend most of their days on the road meeting with new prospects, this new system will allow them more flexibility, as well as have the player insights they need to make the right strategic decisions on the fly. In addition, all of the National’s scouts have been provided iPads for using this system.
The Nationals built their current player evaluation database from the ground up. However, the organization realized that it needed the right technology partner to help bring this system to the next level.
Bloomberg Sports is bringing its programming and data analytics skills to make this system fully functional. The organization is also working with the Los Angeles Angels and the Chicago Cubs to develop similar player evaluation systems.
For bringing enhanced efficiencies to its organization, as well as leveraging data analytics in a mobile environment for player scouting, we are naming the Washington Nationals as this week’s Pivotal Player.
The Washington Captials are the hottest team in hockey. Having won five straight and eight of their last 10, the Caps have climbed to the top of the Southeast Division and all the way into the third spot of the Eastern Conference playoff standings.
Alex Ovechkin’s dominant play in the past two weeks has fueled the team’s late-season renaissance. As a result, the right wing’s return to excellence is this week’s Pivotal Play.
Ovechkin, 27, is a two-time NHL MVP and a multi-time league goal scoring champion. One of the best hockey players on the planet, the Russian-born star posted four 100-point seasons in his first five seasons in the NHL. But Ovechkin has seen his points total diminish every season since the 2007-2008 campaign, and up until about a month ago many critics were saying that the Capitals’ captain was no longer elite.
So much for all that talk.
Over the past three weeks, Ovechkin has turned the clocks back to his magical, offensive-assassin ways of the past. He’s carried the Capitals on a dash toward the top of the standings, particularly in the team’s last 15 games.
During those 15 contests, in which the Capitals have posted an 11-3-1 record, Ovechkin has scored a NHL-best 17 goals while tallying a league-leading 24 points. Considering that the lockout-shortened season will only include 49 games, the 230-pound, goal-scoring machine has essentially been on a heater for nearly a third of his team’s season.
Ovechkin has posted four multi-goal games in his last 10, including the 12th hat-trick of his career in a game that saw a would-be fourth goal wiped away because of a penalty that was assessed prior to him firing a puck that found the back of the net.
Part of Ovechkin’s rebirth can be attributed to his comfort on the right side of the ice, an adjustment made by first-year head coach Adam Oates before the start of the season. Oates felt like his talented superstar had become too predictable as a left wing, so he decided to move him to right wing in hopes that Ovechkin would become more creative while benefitting from adding versatility to his offensive repertoire. Oates’ plan has worked.
Another major factor in Ovechkin returning to form as an elite goal-scorer has been his return to the same line as Nicklas Backstrom, who is back to full health. Backstrom is one of the NHL’s finest play-creating, puck-distributing centers and he’s playing as well as he has at any point in the past couple seasons.
Of Backstrom’s 36 assists on the season, 21 have come during Washington’s torrid 15-game stretch, and the majority of those feeds were turned into goals by Ovechkin.
Now tied for the NHL-lead in goals with 26, Ovechkin is back to being a feared skater and a threat to take over a game any time. But he wasn’t playing that way early this season and not coincidentally, the Capitals were initially a disappointment.
With the season winding down, Ovechkin is back to dominating and so are the Capitals. The “great-eight’s” reemergence is this week’s Pivotal Play.
The youngest member of the Washington Nationals contributed this week’s Pivotal Play. In the interest of accuracy, we should make this week’s Pivotal Play plural, because second-year Nationals’ outfielder turned in a pair of them in his club’s Opening Day win over the Miami Marlins this week.
Harper, the National League’s reigning Rookie of the Year, began his second big league campaign by launching a pair of Ricky Nolasco pitches into the right field bleacher seats. The powerful slugger belted home runs on each of his first two at-bats of the 2013 season, initiating his first full season of big league ball in dramatic and historic fashion.
Prior to Harper’s multi-homer opening day effort, nobody as young as the Nationals’ left fielder had ever smashed a pair of home runs in an Opening Day game. At 20-years and just under 170 days old, the Nevada native became baseball’s youngest hitter to ever deliver two homers in a season-opening tilt.
The first home run Harper hit came in the opening inning of the season, with two outs and nobody on base. The 230-pound specimen got ahead of Nolasco 1-0 in the count after taking a splitter for a ball, then Harper guessed right on the right-hander’s second offering. Nolasco tried to throw a slider, which hung in the zone, allowing Harper to get the big part of his bat on the juicy breaking ball. The result was a 1-0 Nationals lead.
Harper’s second home run came three innings later, at the end of a lengthy at bat to lead-off in the bottom of the fourth inning. The 6-foot-2 inch outfielder jumped ahead of Nolasco 2-0 after taking a pair of pitches off the plate. Harper then fouled off two pitches before hitting a splitter off of the plate to run the count full. Nolasco’s 3-2 pitch to Harper was another slider that didn’t break the way the veteran pitcher would have liked, and Harper made him pay for the second time in as many chances.
The 85 mile-per-hour pitch was blasted in right field, sending the Nationals’ crowd into a frenzy and extending the club’s lead to 2-0. As Washington’s play-by-play voice Dave Jageler said, “Bryce Harper two and the Marlins nothing.”
Washington wouldn’t score again. Luckily for the Nationals, there was no need for more offense than Harper provided thanks to stellar pitching by Stephen Strasburg and the team’s bullpen.
Four days into the major league season, Harper’s two home runs still lead the major leagues. The No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft, Harper clubbed 22 homers in his rookie season during a brilliant 2012 stretch in the major leagues. Most industry insiders are projecting that he’ll hit way more than 22 long balls this season.
But how many more? Could the phenomenon hit 30 in his second season? Are 40 home runs, an elite total by any standard, in play?
If Monday’s Opening Day win is any indication, you may want to start purchasing your tickets to Nationals games in the right field outfield seats. Bryce Harper – the contributor of this week’s Pivotal Plays – will pay you a visit.
George Mason University’s decision to leave the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) and join the Atlantic 10 (A10) is this week’s Pivotal Play.
Mason’s difficult choice to leave the conference it was once a founding member of was far from easy, but the A10 had become increasingly appealing over the last year. The decision of Virginia Commonwealth (VCU), Mason’s most hated rival in the CAA, to jump from the Colonial to the A10 was a major factor.
But it was the overall exodus of some of the conference’s premiere teams that made the A10 the perfect destination for George Mason.
VCU, one of the CAA’s two recent Final Four teams along with GMU, just put the finishing touches on its first A10 campaign. Two of the conference’s other teams, fellow Virginia-based University, Old Dominion University and Georgia State, will also be leaving the CAA this summer.
If you’re George Mason and you see several of the key members of your conference leaving, it is only a matter of time before you follow them. Mason may not have even wanted to leave the CAA but the exodus that took place among other clubs made their decision easier.
Just take a look at the CAA tournament that was recently played. Only seven teams participated in the tournament because ODU and Georgia State weren’t permitted to take part. Two other schools weren’t allowed to help comprise the tournament field because they did not meet academic eligibility requirements.
Mason has become a revered basketball program among non-BCS schools. Why would GMU want to remain in a conference with a watered-down basketball product that just lost two of its most respectable hoops programs (VCU and ODU)? The major benefit to staying from a basketball standpoint would have been that Mason had an easier road to the NCAA tournament every year. But that is like taking an easy class just because you know you won’t be challenged as much as you might in a difficult class.
One of the plusses to GMU leaving the CAA – which will be made up of nine schools next season – will be the rivalries created by the move. In addition to reuniting with old foe, VCU, George Mason will be able to ignite a local rivalry with George Washington University.
Despite the fact that the A10 has lost two of its best basketball schools and most regular NCAA tournament contenders, replacing Butler and Xavier with George Mason and VCU will invigorate the conference’s followers with excitement. Mason made the Final Four in 2006 and VCU was just in the Final Four in 2011.
Mason’s move to the A10 was a basketball decision, and it was an easy one. By leaving the CAA – a great home to the school and team for a long time – Mason has a chance to once again thrive in a competitive conference that could become one of the finest non-BCS basketball leagues.
The A10 could soon become what the CAA was becoming over the past few seasons; a regular threat to send an overachiever deep into the NCAA tournament.
Pivotal Plays aren’t always an action. Sometimes they are the planning that happens before a decision. This week’s Pivotal Play is the Washington Redskins’ decision to keep backup quarterback Rex Grossman in the mix.
The toughest decisions to make are unpopular ones. Grossman, a veteran backup quarterback whose career will ultimately be remembered for his propensity to turn the ball over, is maligned among Washington’s fan base.
He started 13 games during a bad 2011 season while throwing four more interceptions (20) than touchdowns (16). But Grossman provides a service that Washington desperately needs. He’s a backup who knows the team’s offense and can move the Redskins’ offense in a pinch.
With starting quarterback and reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Robert Griffin III, recovering from a serious knee injury and second-year starter, Kirk Cousins entirely unproven, Washington is in the market for a known commodity who can serve as a No. 2 until Griffin is healthy.
Whether the team re-signed Grossman to a third one-year contract in as many years it took to bring in somebody else, the Redskins know they need to add somebody to the quarterbacking depth chart. Why not keep a guy you already know well and who already knows everything about your outfit? More importantly, why not keep a player who has experience working with Griffin and Cousins, whom those two developing passers trust?
“I expect him to be back,” Shanahan said of Grossman on Wednesday at the NFL’s annual owners meetings in Phoenix.
“We’ve talked about it. You’re one play away or two plays away from being the starter,” Shanahan said. “We have to have a guy that come in and feel confident in and execute our offense.”
Grossman is that guy.
If Shanahan’s plan comes to fruition and the former Florida Gator is re-signed, Redskins fans will wonder why he’s back on the roster and how he’s lasted four years. But the fact is, Shanahan’s pivotal decision is the right one.
The former Chicago Bear and Houston Texan serves a valuable purpose. Not every player on every team is a star. Some performers earn their paycheck by answering the questions of players who haven’t played in as many games. Grossman has become one of those players and he’s probably fine with that at this point in his career.
Having started 47 games in his career, Grossman is the type of player who could come off the bench if something happened to Cousins (assuming Griffin is not back to start the season) to help the club move the football. Then he would be content going back to the bench the following week, a trait that not all of the backups the Redskins could bring in share.
Sometimes Pivotal Plays aren’t major, franchise-altering decisions. Occasionally they are the moves you make to prepare for things not going your way.