Believe it or not, this is the best team in the NL

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Believe it or not, this is the best team in the NL

From Comcast SportsNet
NEW YORK (AP) -- Adam LaRoche grabbed a different bat and suddenly solved the enigma of R.A. Dickey. LaRoche hit a tiebreaking homer and the Washington Nationals handed Dickey his first loss in three months, beating the sinking New York Mets 5-2 Tuesday night behind Gio Gonzalez's seven crisp innings. At the suggestion of injured teammate Ian Desmond, LaRoche switched bats in the sixth to a lighter model that belonged to speedy outfielder Roger Bernadina. "I've been using a heavier bat and obviously it hasn't been working against Dickey, so I figured it was time to try something new," said LaRoche, who was 2 for 14 against the knuckleballer before his long home run. Gonzalez (13-5) gave up only two singles in a rematch of All-Star pitchers, five days after New York hit him hard to back Dickey during his 13th win. This time, it went the other way. "Just wanted to redeem myself from the last start," Gonzalez said. "You always want to bounce back as a pitcher. You don't want to feel down and out. A lot of these guys came up to me and gave me some positive energy, positive feedback. So the best I wanted to do was return the favor." Dickey (13-2) allowed five consecutive hits in the sixth, ending his 11-game winning streak, as the Mets lost their fifth straight and 11th in 12 games. Their lone victory since July 7 was Dickey's 9-5 win over Gonzalez last Thursday in Washington. In a mini shake-up before the game, New York demoted slumping right fielder Lucas Duda to the minors. "When you're not playing good baseball against teams like this, they exploit you pretty quickly," Mets third baseman David Wright said. "This stretch is not going to define us over the course of the year." Ryan Zimmerman kept up his tear at the plate with three hits and the Nationals won their fourth in a row to improve the NL's best record to 57-39. They are 8-3 against the Mets this season, winning all four series so far, and will go for a three-game sweep Wednesday at noon with ace Stephen Strasburg on the mound against rookie Jeremy Hefner. "I think we're clicking pretty good," LaRoche said. "It can get better, but it's pretty good right now." Sean Burnett got three outs in the eighth and Tyler Clippard fanned two in a perfect ninth, finishing the three-hitter for his 17th save. Gonzalez struck out four, walked two and did not allow an earned run in his longest outing since May 27. "It was a masterpiece," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "He had something to prove." Jordany Valdespin set a Mets record with his fifth pinch-hit homer of the season. The rookie connected off Ryan Mattheus leading off the eighth, breaking a mark he previously shared with Mark Carreon (1989) and Danny Heep (1983). Dickey was 11-0 in his previous 16 starts since getting roughed up in a 14-6 loss April 18 on a rainy day in Atlanta. Trying to become the first 14-game winner in the majors, he was unable to stop New York's nasty slide. He yielded five runs -- four earned -- and eight hits in six innings. The 37-year-old right-hander tossed an inning of relief Saturday against the Dodgers to help an overworked bullpen, only two days after throwing 111 pitches over 7 1-3 innings in Washington. He has a 5.36 ERA in his last seven outings. "I had a good knuckleball," Dickey said. "I should have pitched into the eighth inning. I felt too good for that to happen." Dickey whiffed star rookie Bryce Harper all three times on knuckleballs ranging from 66-81 mph and was in command until the sixth, when he gave up five straight hits with two outs. Michael Morse singled and LaRoche drove a low knuckler into the upper deck in right, snapping a 1-all tie with his 17th homer. Danny Espinosa singled, Bernadina beat out a slow dribbler toward first and Jesus Flores hit an RBI single to left. Jason Bay's wide throw to the plate got away for an error that allowed Bernadina to score, making it 5-1. Espinosa's throwing error at shortstop led to an unearned run in the second. Ronny Cedeno hit an RBI single to right with two outs, giving New York its first lead in 42 innings since last Thursday, but was thrown out by Harper trying to stretch it into a double. Gonzalez retired his next 11 batters and did not permit another hit until Ike Davis' two-out single in the seventh. A switch-hitter, Espinosa batted right-handed against Dickey to get a better look at the knuckleball. The first time up, Espinosa struck out swinging. But in the fourth, his two-out double tied it 1-all after Zimmerman opened the inning with a bloop double. NOTES: Flores (back) was back behind the plate after sitting out two games. ... Washington is 9-1-3 in series against NL East opponents. ... Harper is 0 for 10 against Dickey with six strikeouts. ... New York released RHP Miguel Batista, designated for assignment Sunday.

Blackhawks will consider breaking up Artemi Panarin, Patrick Kane

Blackhawks will consider breaking up Artemi Panarin, Patrick Kane

Saturday morning’s potential lineup looked different for a few reasons. First, there were more familiar faces, thanks to players trickling in after their World Cup of Hockey work.

Second, Artemi Panarin and Patrick Kane weren’t on the same line. While part of that is because the Blackhawks are still short a few players, it’s also an experiment that could carry over into the regular-season.

Kane was with Nick Schmaltz and Artem Anisimov and Panarin was with Vinnie Hinostroza and Richard Panik and they’ll see how that works starting Saturday night against the St. Louis Blues. Granted, this is only part of the change. The main gist is to give Jonathan Toews, who hasn’t joined the Blackhawks for camp yet, a good playing partner on that top line. Still, it’s a first look coach Joel Quenneville would like to take.

"It’s definitely a thought process and we’re saying ‘Let’s have a look at it in camp," Quenneville said. "And maybe we can have a different look or something to think about, at least, going into the season with Johnny and Kaner being on different lines and having more balance on both lines."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

The Blackhawks struggled with finding the right combinations, outside of that top line, last season. Panarin did play with Toews for a few games but the combination didn’t click as well as the Panarin-Kane one, and that second line of those two and Anisimov was quickly restored. This season the issues facing the Blackhawks’ forward depth are obvious, so it’s worth another look to see, once Toews gets here, if he and Panarin can get something going.

"[It’s] more so about having balance on both lines and having more depth and scoring throughout the lineup," Quenneville said.

BRIEFLY

- Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger and Brent Seabrook will also play vs. St. Louis.

- Quenneville said Duncan Keith (knee) is progressing well and, "we’re hoping that he can get a [preseason] game in or so."

- Scott Darling is slated to play the entire game against the Blues.

Bears formula for beating Lions is basic

Bears formula for beating Lions is basic

Talking about what the Bears can do to defeat the Detroit Lions suddenly has a vague feel of irrelevance, since the downward spiral of the 0-3 start raises far broader questions and doubts than one game. But in point of fact, it IS about one game. More on that later.

Earlier in this week your humble and faithful narrator laid out three foundation points upon which the Bears could begin building a way out of the abyss. Nothing has changed in the meantime other than a few injury designations, and there is zero reason to dwell on those because the solution is about as simple as things can get. And they extend beyond Sunday’s game against the Lions.

“You’ve just got to keep improving,” said Brian Hoyer, the presumptive starting quarterback Sunday against Detroit and until Jay Cutler’s injured right thumb is sufficiently healed. “Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. Everybody has injuries. It’s unfortunately part of the business so everybody just has to step up.

“And not only the guy himself has to step up, the guys around him have to step up. That’s just the nature of the beast.”

Which gets back to those three “turnaround” elements, because those comprise the basic formula for the Bears to overcome the Lions and themselves. Consider these the proverbial “three keys,” tailored to the immediate game at hand.

Unleash a defensive “village”

The Bears have not proved themselves capable of winning enough one-on-one matchups pretty much anywhere on the field, any side of the football. An alternative exists on defense, however: Swarm to the football, something that was axiomatic with Lovie Smith defenses but evaporated under Marc Trestman/Mel Tucker and has not developed under John Fox and Vic Fangio. It is also the only realistic way the Bears can have a dominant defensive game, which is the only realistic way the Bears can win a football game.

The Lions were never a particularly fun matchup for Chicago defenses when they had Calvin Johnson. In beating the Bears the last six times the teams met, Detroit averaged 29.3 points per game. Without Megatron the Lions are averaging 27 per game this season. Meaning: Things haven’t necessarily gotten any better since the Big Fella called it a career.

In place of Johnson, the focal point of the Detroit offense has become wideout Marvin Jones, No. 2 in the NFL in receiving yards and averaging 22.7 yards on his 18 receptions. Equally concerning: Jones has picked up first downs on 13 of those 18 catches.

[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]

“He's made some big plays,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “He's had some big ‘chunk’ plays, a 73-yarder last week, I think he had a 50-some yarder in another game. He leads the [NFC] in receiving yards and [is No. 2 in] average per catch. They've got a lot of weapons.”

The problem with that is that the Lions are predominantly a three-receiver offense, another team that will schematically force the Bears out of their base 3-4 and into nickel. The Bears intercepted a Houston Texans pass on the first possession of the season. They have not intercepted one in the 34 opponent possessions since then.

Detroit doesn’t run the football overly well (101 yards per game), but if the Bears cannot force quarterback Matthew Stafford to throw toward Jones or Golden Tate before he wants to, an undermanned secondary has no chance.

The defense no longer has a shutdown corner, even one must-account-for pass rusher or an established all-around game-changer. Jerrell Freeman is the best player on a struggling defense. The solution is a form of flash-mob flying to the football, second and third men in stripping the ball. One tackler or pass rusher has proved insufficient.

Take it on the run

It is far from any sort of exact correlation, but all six of the Bears’ wins last season came in games where they rushed more times than their opponent. A seventh win escaped them when Robbie Gould missed a kick against San Francisco. Only the Lions in Week 17 rushed fewer times than the Bears and won.

The Bears are not only among the NFL’s worst rushing teams (70 yards per game, 30th), but also its least busy, with 53 total attempts through three games. The total is mystifying because the Bears led the Texans through three quarters and the Eagles for most of two, making the reasoning that the Bears were trailing and forced to throw very difficult to understand.

The Lions allow 5.1 yards per rush, worst in the NFL. They are without top pass rusher Ziggy Ansah. If the Bears cannot run on this defense (allowing 28.3 ppg.), the issues are far deeper than feared and the philosophies and play calling of coordinator Dowell Loggains will come under even more scrutiny than they already have.

“I was pretty disappointed as well [after 15 rush attempts at Dallas],” guard Kyle Long said. “Just execution, and sometimes it’s not execution. It’s just you’ve got to beat the guy across from you and we haven’t done that enough.”

Win one play…then one drive…one quarter…one game

The Bears cannot get back to .500 Sunday afternoon. Barring a 28-point outburst, they cannot win the Detroit game in the first quarter. They led Houston and Philadelphia in first halves and lost.

To his credit, Fox has kept the target small, and simple. Because it is.

“It’s execution and it’s execution in all three phases,” Fox said. “Whether it’s the first half or the second half, they’re two equal times. And you have to put a complete game together and we have not done that through the first three games.” 

And the winner is...

“View from the Moon” erred in Dallas by going against its first impression and pick back early in the offseason, that the Bears would lose to the Cowboys, which they did. The Bears have done little to suggest that they are poised to go on any sort of upswing, but the Lions inspire not a lot to suggest that they are an NFC North power. The preseason pick stays:

Bears 17,  Lions 14

View from the Moon 2016 record: 1-2