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Dolphins’ joint practices with Buccaneers will be team’s first look against an opponent — and will be telling

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Dolphins’ Joint Practices With Buccaneers Will Be Team’s First Look Against An Opponent — And Will Be Telling
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We have reached the “I’m happy to get to hit guys in a different colored jersey” part of the NFL calendar.

The Miami Dolphins have gone through two weeks of training camp where all they’ve seen and practiced against is themselves. This week, the Dolphins are in Tampa for joint practices with the Buccaneers on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of Saturday night’s preseason opener at Raymond James Stadium.

Although some veterans may be nursing injuries or otherwise taking maintenance days, a number of interesting matchups should be seen. For one, Dolphins defenders, who mostly all return from last season, get another shot at quarterback Tom Brady and the Buccaneers offense that embarrassed them in last season’s 45-17 loss on Oct. 10. On the other side, it offers the Dolphins’ new-look offense behind coach Mike McDaniel a first glance against an opponent in Tampa’s aggressive defense.

New Dolphins star receiver Tyreek Hill is excited to face an opponent for the first time in a Miami uniform after feasting against Dolphins cornerback Noah Igbinoghene for two weeks, but having Xavien Howard get the best of him in a small sample size of 1-on-1 pairings.

“I’m really sick of going against X, man. He’s been locking me up in practice,” Hill said last Saturday. “I’m really eager to go against somebody else.”

Of course, Brady and the Dolphins have been connected plenty throughout the offseason and in recent news of Miami’s tampering violations revealed by an NFL investigation last week. Brady retired and then unretired this offseason before returning with the Buccaneers to play another season at age 45. Multiple reports, including from the South Florida Sun Sentinel, revealed the Dolphins were in talks with Brady over a dual playing and front office role in Miami. The NFL’s investigation found the Dolphins tampered with Brady both in 2019 while he was a member of the New England Patriots and last season with the Bucs.

Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who will get this third NFL season to prove himself in Miami despite the team looking into Brady and Deshaun Watson since he was drafted with the No. 5 pick in 2020, has impressed in training camp.

The Dolphins defense started off vanilla with its coverages, but Tagovailoa has since adjusted to facing coordinator Josh Boyer’s aggressive blitzing scheme deeper into camp. That’s more like the looks he should face against Tampa coach Todd Bowles and defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers. The Buccaneers, blitzing 40.8 percent of the time in 2021, according to Pro Football Reference, were the only team to bring extra pass rushers more often than the Dolphins (39.6 percent).

Miami’s restructured offensive line will go against a stout Bucs defensive front. With prized free-agent left tackle Terron Armstead anchoring his side, three others are working at a new position between left guard Liam Eichenberg, center Connor Williams and right tackle Austin Jackson. That grouping has to show progress in run and pass blocking while Williams needs to secure his snap accuracy, which has been problematic early in camp after playing guard four seasons in Dallas.

Armstead, who had a knee procedure performed in the offseason, has been on and off the practice field in a maintenance program. He may remain limited as the Dolphins have also progressively brought back running back Raheem Mostert and fullback Alec Ingold from knee injuries with the 49ers and Raiders, respectively. While cornerback Byron Jones remains on the physically-unable-to-perform list, McDaniel called it “case by case” with how he’ll handle different veterans’ workloads.

“There are a couple of veterans where, for them to be able to practice with the known intensity that comes with practicing against an opponent for the first time since January, there are some guys that we kind of have to monitor and we’re resting on the front end of it,” McDaniel said on Sunday, the last time Miami practiced before departing for Tampa. “Then, there are other guys that we’ll just have to, for us to get through the whole practice and for them to get the work they need, they may sit out individual [drills].”

Hill, Jaylen Waddle and Cedrick Wilson Jr. will go against a Bucs secondary led by safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and cornerback and Miami Norland High grad Carlton Davis. Howard and the Dolphins secondary may match up against new Tampa receivers Julio Jones and Russell Gage, while Chris Godwin slowly works back from an ACL tear and Mike Evans works through some training camp tweaks.

The Dolphins’ attacking defensive front will see if it can get to Brady against a Bucs offensive line that had center Ryan Jensen sustain a knee injury last week.

“Being at this point in my career, four years in, I have a little bit of a different mindset when I go into the joint practices,” said Miami defensive lineman Christian Wilkins. “As a young guy, you’re still like trying to figure it out. ‘Am I good enough? Am I not?’ Now you just have a different mindset and different things you want to attack and work on when you go to those joint practices.”

The Dolphins can also have their next young, upstart roster longshot make his mark toward eventually attaining a roster spot in this setting.

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Jets need Zach Wilson back in a major way

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Jets Need Zach Wilson Back In A Major Way
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Stop me when you’ve heard this before, the Jets’ mental mistakes were ultimately their downfall on Sunday afternoon.

Just like in the Week 1 loss to the Baltimore Ravens two weeks ago, the Jets just couldn’t get out of their own way in their 27-12 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday.

It is easy to point the finger at the offense and say that’s the source of Gang Green’s issues, but their problems are much deeper than that. The offensive line gave Joe Flacco zero time in the pocket as he was sacked four times.

However, they desperately need quarterback Zach Wilson to return against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

After his stellar performance against the Cleveland Browns last week, the Jets fans went back to chanting for Mike White against the Bengals and deservingly so. Flacco had his worst outing of the season as he completed 28 of 52 passes for 285 yards and two interceptions and coughed up the ball twice.

“When you’re not winning football games, fans want you to go out there and win football games,” Flacco said. “They’re here to watch football, but they’re here to watch their team win.

“You get the frustration, but at the same time, it is a two-score game and we have more important things to worry about than that stuff. We just have to go play football, then that stuff, it’s going to happen.”

Earlier this month, Saleh said Wilson wouldn’t return before the Jets’ Week 4 matchup at the Pittsburgh Steelers. Wilson has been working his way back from his meniscus trim and bone bruise injury he suffered during the first week of the preseason.

During the last couple of weeks, Wilson has taken part in practice on a limited basis working with trainers and throwing the football. On Sunday, Wilson threw to some Jets players, including tight end Tyler Conklin. There was no brace or no sleeve on his surgically repaired right knee.

After the game, Saleh said Wilson would be evaluated on Monday but declined to say if the second-year player would start next week.

Either way, the Jets need some sort of energy for this offense, their defense and the rest of the team. The jury is still out on if Wilson is the Jets’ answer at the quarterback position.

No, Wilson won’t help fix the mental mistakes the Jets are making defensively, as, throughout the day, they suffered from drop passes, turnovers, missed assignments and penalties. Those include a Franklin-Myers unnecessary roughness penalty on third down he received for touching Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow after the ball was released.

Had the Jets not had that personal foul called, the Bengals would have punted. Instead, the Bengals scored their second touchdown of the day on a Tyler Boyd 56-yard reception.

Speaking of Boyd’s touchdown, safety Jordan Whitehead tried to tackle him by using his shoulder. It didn’t work and Boyd ran all the way to the end zone for six points.

“Our vets are making critical mistakes,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said. “JFL [John Franklin-Myers] personal foul, ticky-tack or not, that just can’t happen. And Corey [Davis] obviously with the penalty he had.

“It has to get fixed.”

Later in the game, as the Jets were possibly set to score their first touchdown of the game, Davis was called for a personal foul.

That penalty proved to be backbreaking as the 15-yard penalty took the Jets from 3rd and six to 3rd and 21. Gang Green eventually went for it on fourth down and Flacco was sacked and the team turned it over on downs.

“Mental errors, especially on the back end, which we can’t have,” cornerback D.J. Reed said. “Teams are too good.

“They had the touchdown, ok, clap it up. But the other stuff is mental errors. We have to make it simple so we can stop with the mental errors, we have to communicate more, whatever the case might be.

“We have to get it fixed.”

Having Wilson back could indeed be the step in the right direction to have this team believing they have a chance to win every Sunday. Especially on offense where the Jets look lifeless at times.

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Mike Preston’s report card: Position-by-position grades for Ravens’ 37-26 win over Patriots | COMMENTARY

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Mike Preston’s Report Card: Position-By-Position Grades For Ravens’ 37-26 Win Over Patriots | Commentary
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Here’s how the Ravens graded out at each position after a 37-26 win over the New England Patriots in Week 3 on Sunday at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Quarterback

Lamar Jackson ran for 107 yards on 11 carries and completed 18 of 29 passes for 218 yards and four touchdowns. During most of the game, he was the team’s entire offense, but he also missed some open receivers and struggled in the second quarter when he stopped stepping into his throws. His touchdown pass to tight end Mark Andrews in the second quarter was underthrown and could easily have been intercepted. On this team, however, he is the difference-maker. Grade: B

Running backs

For the first time this season, the Ravens earned some respect. Fourth-year player Justice Hill had shown gradual improvement in the first two weeks and finished with 60 yards on six carries Sunday, but he also struggled in pass protection. Playing in his first game since suffering a knee injury in last year’s preseason finale, J.K. Dobbins recorded 23 yards on seven carries and caught two passes for 17 yards. The running game got stronger in the second half and Dobbins even made some defenders miss or ran through them. Grade: C

Offensive line

The Ravens struggled in the first half, especially after left tackle Patrick Mekari went down with an ankle injury and had to be replaced by rookie Daniel Faalele. The offensive line allowed four sacks, but this group got in a rhythm in the second half, especially with Jackson darting off tackle on running plays. The Ravens still need to be more consistent run blocking, as Hill’s 34-yard carry accounted for most of the running backs’ production. Grade: C+

Receivers

New England coach Bill Belichick is famous for taking away the opposing team’s top offensive weapons, but he couldn’t slow down Jackson nor Andrews, who had eight catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns. The receivers weren’t much of a factor until the second half but made some big plays when it mattered most. Rashod Bateman finished with two catches for 59 yards and Devin Duvernay had two catches for 25 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone to extend the Ravens’ lead late in the third quarter. Grade: C+

Defensive line

The Patriots finished with 447 yards of total offense, including 145 rushing yards on 28 attempts. That’s pretty concerning, especially since New England’s longest carry went for 18 yards. . Justin Madubuike (one sack, two tackles for loss) was dominant in the second half after struggling in the first and fellow defensive end Calais Campbell turned in a solid effort, but nose tackle Broderick Washington got pushed off the ball consistently. The Ravens also lost nose tackle Michael Pierce to a left arm injury. The Patriots weren’t cute, they just ran straight ahead. Grade: D

Linebackers

It’s a toss-up between which position group is worse, the linebackers or the secondary. Inside linebacker Josh Bynes led the team in tackles with 10, but a lot of those were away from the line of scrimmage. Both he and weak-side linebacker Patrick Queen (five tackles, one sack) had trouble getting off blocks. Outside linebacker Odafe Oweh finished with five tackles but still wasn’t much of a threat as a pass rusher, which was supposed to be his forte coming out of college. Veteran outside linebacker Justin Houston went down with a groin injury and didn’t return. Grade: D

Secondary

Cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters each contributed to game-saving turnovers in the fourth quarter, but the Ravens allowed 321 passing yards to second-year quarterback Mac Jones, who often threw behind or late to his receivers. Rookie cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis started the game but quickly earned a spot on the bench after getting beat twice in the first quarter. Safety Marcus Williams covers a lot of ground on the backend for the Ravens, but he’s not superman. Grade: D

Special teams

Duvernay has become a weapon on special teams, as evidenced by his 43-yard punt return in the second half. Justin Tucker made a 53-yard field goal late in the game but missed an extra-point attempt after the team’s final touchdown. Rookie Jordan Stout also shanked a punt in crunch time, his second in three games this season. He might need a little more tutoring from assistant special teams coach and former Ravens punter Sam Koch. Grade: B

Coaching

There are times when offensive coordinator Greg Roman dials up plays that make the Ravens look unbeatable and other times when it appears to be street ball. First-year defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald also has to improve his unit after another shaky performance. Coach John Harbaugh might have to take a harder look at defensive backs coach Chris Hewitt. Something is missing on the back end of this defense. Grade: C+

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‘Not acceptable. That’s not baseball. It was terrible.’ Chicago White Sox out of AL Central contention after going 0-6 during homestand.

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‘Not Acceptable. That’s Not Baseball. It Was Terrible.’ Chicago White Sox Out Of Al Central Contention After Going 0-6 During Homestand.
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It was a homestand to forget for the Chicago White Sox.

Six games. Six losses.

And to top it off, the team’s pursuit of the AL Central title is officially over after Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers in front of 33,549 at Guaranteed Rate Field.

The Cleveland Guardians, who began the Sox’s slide Tuesday, are division champions.

“It’s obviously very disappointing,” Sox starter Dylan Cease said.

The Sox began the season as the popular pick to not only win the division, but to compete for a shot at the World Series. Now they are on the verge of missing the playoffs completely, trailing the Seattle Mariners by 7 1/2 games with nine to go for the final wild-card spot.

“We definitely didn’t play up to our ability,” Cease said.

Asked about the week, which featured three losses to the Guardians and three to the Tigers, acting manager Miguel Cairo described Sunday as “the worst.”

“That’s not acceptable,” Cairo said. “That’s not baseball. That’s not what the Chicago White Sox are about. It was terrible.”

Asked if it was about execution or effort, Cairo said, “You can put it either way. Execution. Effort. Everything.”

The Sox squandered a strong outing from the AL Cy Young Award candidate Cease, who allowed four hits in six scoreless innings.

The Tigers tied the game with a run in the seventh and scored three more in the eighth to complete the sweep.

“You’ve got to come back Tuesday (in Minnesota),” Cairo said. “So they better bring some effort. It was kind of embarrassing.

“You saw for six series, the way you are supposed to play the game. And you saw (Sunday), it was totally different team. There’s nine more games. Got to finish strong and hard.”

The Sox were outscored 16-6 in the Tigers series.

“If you watch (Sunday’s) game, that was bad, besides Cease, (he) pitched really good and kept us in the game,” Cairo said.

Cease described his outing as “all right.”

“I want my fastball command to be better, but I did a good job grinding,” said Cease, who had five strikeouts and three walks. “It was one of those grind games. It was good enough.”

Cease began the day second in the majors in ERA and opponents average, fourth in strikeouts per nine innings, and fifth in strikeouts.

He received defensive help in the second with a leaping catch by left fielder AJ Pollock at the wall to rob the Tigers’ Kerry Carpenter. Cease made the big pitch in a big spot in the fifth, getting Javier Báez to pop out to catcher Seby Zavala with the bases loaded for the final out.

The Tigers loaded the bases with no outs in the sixth. Cease induced a double play, as Jonathan Schoop hit a grounder to third, where Yoán Moncada made a throw to the plate to get the lead runner and Zavala fired to first to get Schoop.

Jeimer Candelario flied out to center as the Sox maintained a 1-0 lead.

“He’s been pitching like that all year round and it was good to see him give us a chance to win,” Cairo said of Cease.

The Tigers tied the game on an RBI double by Victor Reyes against reliever Reynaldo López. They scored three runs in the eighth against reliever Kendall Graveman.

After the disastrous week, the Sox are left to ponder what went wrong in a lost season.

“It was tough,” Cease said of the week. “After a disappointing season, for it to be sort of capped off by this, it’s tough. I still like us to finish strong with our last nine.

“We’re definitely disappointed. We take the game serious. We compete, so when you compete and it doesn’t work out, it’s frustrating. We’re disappointed, but we got a lot of professional guys here, a lot of guys with a lot of big league time. We’re not sulking. We’re showing up to play the rest of the games.”

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John Shipley: Don’t discount another Vikings win over Detroit. This was a big one

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John Shipley: Let’s Hope We’re Not Left With Stupid Baseball
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Well, we don’t have the Vikings to kick around this week. But, boy, was it close. That’s the NFL. Even the best teams are going to have to steal a few wins here and there.

A team like this one, three games into a new season with a new coaching staff? We’re going to watch more nail-biters like the Vikings’ 28-24, come-from-behind victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium.

“It was a good learning game,” veteran linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “We got hit in the mouth a lot. We weren’t perfect, but we’re going to be better going forward.”

As noted, it looked bleak, especially after Detroit drove into Vikings territory with a 24-21 lead and the clock winding down under 4 minutes to play. The Lions needed to convert a fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 30 to, for all intents and purposes, close the game out. Detroit already was 4 for 5 on fourth-down conversions and fans were getting not just anxious but testy, a shouting match breaking out in the stands just beneath the press box.

The Vikings just kept playing.

“That’s what our job is,” defensive end Danielle Hunter said. “Things ain’t always gonna go our way. Adversity’s always going to strike; it’s all about how you respond. So, you’ve got to keep chopping wood.”

On fourth down, Lions halfback Jamaal Williams ran off tackle right and immediately ran into trouble in the form of Hunter and Kendricks.

“Oh, we knew they were gonna run it, man,” Hunter said. “Fourth-and-1, it has run written all over it. Everyone just had to be in their gaps.”

They were. Williams was stood up for no gain, and the Vikings had life again. Yet, still it looked bleak when on the Vikings’ ensuing drive, quarterback Kirk Cousins and receiver Adam Thielen couldn’t connect on fourth-and-8 with 2 minutes, 32 seconds left, giving Detroit the ball back at the Vikings’ 47-yard line.

Game over, right? Here we go again.

“I didn’t even really think about it, to be honest,” said Thielen, who had a good case for interference on the play. Instead of stewing, he looked ahead.

“Throughout a game, you can do two things when you get back to the sideline: You can look back at plays you could have done a better job on, and get frustrated, or you can move on and try to be prepared for the next series,” he said.

Good call, because when Detroit place-kicker Austin Seibert missed a 54-yard field-goal attempt, the Vikings had one last chance from their own 44 with 1:10 left. It took them exactly 20 seconds to score the go-ahead touchdown on a 28-yard pass from Cousins to K.J. Osborn.

Thielen was open on the play, but Osborn was too — and closer to the end zone. He trotted in untouched and the Vikings had their first lead of the game, 28-24, after Greg Joseph’s extra-point kick.

The two completed passes — both to Osborn, both for 28 yards — were, head coach Kevin O’Connell acknowledged, “quite honestly … not on the call sheet. But we found a way to go out there with all 11 (players) and execute.”

“You could kind of feel in the huddle, with that momentum shift, ‘Hey, we’re going to do something here,’ ” Thielen said. “ ‘I don’t know how it’s going to shake out, but we’re going to do something here.’ ”

It wasn’t always pretty, but it was a good win. An important win, particularly for a team still finding its legs. There’s a big difference between 2-1 and 1-2, and it’s a lot better to learn from mistakes made during a win than a loss. And lest we forget, the Vikings lost a game just like this last season at Ford Field.

No, we don’t have the Vikings to kick around this week. A win, against any team by any means, was required to rinse the taste of last Monday’s 24-7 loss at Philadelphia’s from everyone’s mouth.

It wasn’t pretty, but it’ll do.

“There’s a lot of things we’ll do better,” O’Connell said.

After a win like that one, even against the eternally struggling Lions, it’s much, much easier to believe him.

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Orioles collapse late for second straight day, fall to Astros, 6-3, in 11 innings to settle for series split

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Orioles Collapse Late For Second Straight Day, Fall To Astros, 6-3, In 11 Innings To Settle For Series Split
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Rougned Odor came up clutch twice Sunday, producing when the Orioles most needed him. But when a laser left his bat in the eighth inning, he didn’t think the ball would drop until it was over the right field wall.

And by the time Odor noticed that ball was destined to bang off the top of the scoreboard, the tying run had crossed but the second baseman stood on first rather than second. The baserunning gaffe proved costly in Sunday’s 6-3 loss to the Houston Astros, which ended the four-game series against the American League’s best club in a split.

But the implications of Odor, who had a pair of game-tying hits, admiring his near-home run instead of running out of the box is what might’ve led to the extra-innings collapse, with Houston scoring four runs off left-hander Keegan Akin and right-hander Joey Krehbiel in the 11th inning to create the necessary separation.

In the eighth, when Ryan Mountcastle lashed a double into right-center field, Odor drove him in with that hard-hit ball off the right field wall. The game was tied at 1, and Odor let out a fist pump and a yell toward his dugout. But he might’ve scored on Kyle Stowers’ single in the next at-bat, and he would’ve likely scored on Jorge Mateo’s infield single one at-bat later had he reached second on his game-tying hit.

Instead, the inning ended with bases loaded, Odor on third and the game still tied. And it remained that way into extra innings before an eventual collapse — four of the first five Astros reached safely in the 11th, with the one out a sacrifice fly to score the first of the four runs.

Baltimore had enough to overcome two deficits — first in the eighth and again in the 10th. With Trey Mancini at the plate for Houston, a wild pitch from right-hander Dillon Tate brought home Yuli Gurriel from third. Mancini later doubled off the top of the left field wall; by staying in the yard, Odor drove in the Orioles’ second run of the game, serving as the late-game stoic for a second time to level the score.

But a third comeback was out of reach, even as Cedric Mullins got one run back with an RBI single in the 11th.

Hours earlier, a 46-minute rain delay came at the right time for Baltimore, knocking Astros right-hander Cristian Javier out of the contest after he faced the minimum through six innings and didn’t allow a hit until the fifth.

Javier struck out seven of the first 12 batters he faced, then finished with eight strikeouts overall. And by holding the Orioles scoreless, he extended his scoreless innings streak to 20.

But even with so little offensive production, right-hander Austin Voth kept the Orioles in the game. He gave up his lone run on a third-inning sacrifice fly, securing his ninth straight appearance with two runs or fewer scored against him.

The Astros broke through against the bullpen for the second straight game, though, capitalizing on a disastrous inning from Akin and Krehbiel. With just 10 games to play, the Orioles find themselves 4 games behind the Mariners, who blew a nine-run sixth inning lead and lost to the Royals, 13-12.

A comeback fell short Sunday. And a comeback for the final wild-card race might’ve fallen short Sunday, too.

Around the horn

  • Tyler Wells, who will miss the remainder of the season on the 15-day injured list for right shoulder inflammation, said the injury reminds him of the pain he felt at the end of last year. The shoulder wasn’t aggravated in any way by his earlier oblique strain, however. Still, watching from the dugout the remainder of the season is a disappointing development. “I use the term ‘heartbroken’ because it sucks whenever you’re not able to compete with the team as we’re making the final push,” Wells said. “It’s really difficult to sit there and be on the sidelines, but I’m trying to contribute as much as I can by being supportive.”
  • Right-hander Félix Bautista threw a career-high 33 pitches in Saturday’s loss, but his lack of usage last week makes manager Brandon Hyde confident there will be no arm fatigue for Bautista. “He’s thrown a lot this year, but we’ll just check in with him every day and see what he’s doing,” Hyde said.
  • Infielder Ramón Urías left Saturday’s game with a spasm between his neck and right shoulder, something he’s dealt with over the past few days. Hyde figured Urías will be back in the lineup in a day or two.

This story will be updated.

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Chicago Cubs starters have the majors’ 3rd-best ERA since the All-Star break. How improved depth better positions them for 2023.

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Chicago Cubs Starters Have The Majors’ 3Rd-Best Era Since The All-Star Break. How Improved Depth Better Positions Them For 2023.
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The Pittsburgh Pirates’ approach to Adrian Sampson was simple — and allowed the Chicago Cubs right-hander to be effective.

Aggressive, early swings in the count allowed Sampson to cruise through six innings Sunday, shutting down the Pirates in an 8-3 victory at PNC Park. Sampson allowed one run and four hits on 67 pitches, striking out six with no walks.

Sampson exemplifies the improved depth and internal options the Cubs have been able to utilize this season. He showed a glimpse last year in 10 appearances (five starts), recording a 2.80 ERA in 35⅓ innings. He has remained reliable in a larger role in 2022, posting a 3.23 ERA in 94⅔ innings through 19 appearances (17 starts).

Sampson is one of 14 pitchers to start multiple games for the Cubs in 2022. More important is the quality of the pitchers the Cubs have used to fill in for injuries in the rotation.

Fewer veteran, journeyman pitchers and more internal arms — such as Javier Assad, Caleb Kilian and Hayden Wesneski — to fill in over the last few weeks better positions the Cubs to build their pitching staff in 2023.

Since the All-Star break, the rotation’s 3.15 ERA ranks third in the majors behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros.

“Early in the year when we had the depth but they maybe just weren’t ready, it showed how much it affected our team,” pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said Sunday. “We went through some tough stretches where we didn’t have the ability to have consistent starting pitching.

“And now that you have guys that have proven that they can do that, that have had a good run through the minor leagues and they come up and have success, it definitely gives you a lot of confidence as an organization that going into next year you’ve got some viable starting pitching depth, long reliever depth that you know can come up and help through the course of a long season.”

With nine games left, the Cubs won’t rush back any starter who is working through something.

Left-hander Drew Smyly (left shoulder fatigue) initially was looking to pitch when the team returns home to face the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday through Thursday, but he is not slated to start during the series. He threw a bullpen session Sunday, and if it goes well, Smyly could make one more start this season.

Left-hander Wade Miley (left oblique tightness) felt better Sunday, but given the injuries he has battled this year, it would not be a surprise if he’s done for the season.

Left-hander Justin Steele likely will throw another high-intensity bullpen before the Cubs evaluate whether the next step is live batting practice or being activated off the injured list. Ideally Steele would pitch in another big-league game, but ensuring he is fully healthy is the main priority.

“The value of getting in the game would just be checking a box basically,” Hottovy said. “Make sure that he’s progressing and feeling the way the way he wants. We can also do that in a bullpen setting or live BP setting as well. So we’ll just evaluate how the next few days go and then make the decision as a group (on) what’s best for Justin at that time.”

As attention starts to shift to the offseason, the Cubs lack a true No. 1 starter. That should be a top priority in the offseason. The Cubs have a good mix to build around a top starter, led by Marcus Stroman, Steele and Keegan Thompson. Wesneski has shown promise, too, while Adbert Alzolay likely will prepare for a starter’s workload in the offseason and report to camp built up.

“When we start getting into the free-agent information, the digging, the talking through what we want to do, obviously all the things that we’ve done with these guys is going to play a factor into what we try to do,” Hottovy said. “And hopefully (free agents) will see that we’re heading in the direction that we want to go and that they would want to go.”

Alzolay’s best fit could be as a multi-inning reliever, which is enticing to Hottovy and the Cubs. It also plays into building a balanced bullpen by incorporating a mix of controllable, younger arms with veteran relievers.

The Cubs have relied on veteran free agents to fill the back-end, high-leverage spots the last two seasons and then flipped those relievers at the trade deadline. Ultimately they want a blend of experience in the bullpen and a diversified pitch mix to ensure they can give different looks and not become one-dimensional.

A multi-inning reliever for higher-leverage spots would be ideal.

“That’s something I definitely see Adbert being able to fulfill,” Hottovy said. “Once we get to a point where he’s feeling good and fully healthy and gets through this season feeling good.”

The wild card for the 2023 pitching staff is veteran right-hander Kyle Hendricks.

Hottovy said the Cubs can count on Hendricks next season “until he proves (to) us otherwise.” Hendricks, who will be entering his final guaranteed year, has been rehabbing his right shoulder strain at the Cubs complex in Mesa, Ariz., since mid-August. He still is not throwing.

Hendricks’ work right now is focused on strengthening his lower body as he refines his delivery. Hottovy hopes that by the time Hendricks starts throwing, he will be mechanically locked in with his lower half.

“He’s been relatively healthy for a lot of his career, so I’m confident in him getting some rest (and) having a good normal offseason and buildup,” Hottovy said. “So as of right now, we absolutely are believing in Kyle Hendricks to be a huge part of what we’re going to do next year, and obviously we’ll have to see how things develop over the offseason. We’ll be in constant communication with him.”

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