With their season set to tipoff Saturday night at the Verizon Center, the Washington Mystics can truly put the 2011 campaign behind them.That's a good thing. After finishing tied for the best record in the WNBA's Eastern Conference in 2010, the Mystics win total plummeted. Beset by injuries and inexperience, the recorddropped to a dismal 6-28. Not surpisingly, massive changes followed; only four players return, including all-star forward and former University of Maryland star Crystal Langhorne.The new roster put together by second-year coach and general manager Trudi Lacey boasts size plus veteran presence up front and in the backcourt. The first chance to see what the revamped squad is all about comes at 7 p.m. against the Chicago Sky. Here's what else you need to know about the new-look Mystics:Who's back: It all starts with Langhorne, who led the Mystics in scoring (18.2), rebounding and field goal percentage last season. The 6-foot-2 forward's scoring average has risen in each of first four WNBA seasons despite being the constant focus of opposing defenses. Help on the wing comes from the return of small forward Monique Currie (Bullis), who missed nearly all of last season with a knee injury. In 2010, the crafty scorer averaged 14.1 points and shot 45 percent from beyond the arc. In the Mystics preseason finale, Currie tallied 19 points and sank both of her 3-point attempts. Good sign indeed.Matee Ajavon took over the off-guard last season and finished second in scoring behind Langhorne. Dealing with a sore knee limited her during training camp while rising second-year point guard Jasmine Thomas missed time with knee tendinitis.Who's new: Seven of the Mystics 11 roster spots are filled with new faces. The acquistion of 6-foot-5 Michelle Snowstands out as the most prominent. The 10-year pro, along with former Seattle Storm shot blocker Crystal Robinson, will provide Langhorne protection inside plus a fiercer presence in the paint and on the glass. Center LaToya Pringle and forward Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton round out the frontcourt.Dominque Canty's 13-years of WNBA experience puts the quarterbacking of the Mystics up-tempo offense into veteran hands. She will also serve as mentor to Thomas, a first-round pick last season. Three-point threat Noelle Quinn and Natasha Lacy add punch off the bench.Then there is rookie Natalie Novosel, one ofthe Mystics twofirst-round picks, but the only one to make the final roster. The gritty anddurable5-foot-11 guardkeyedNotre Dame's run to thenational championship game and she will earn minutes as a defensive stalwart. Novosel also shot 41 percent from 3-point range combined over her last two seasions with the Irish.Where's Alana: After two injury plagued seasons, Alana Beard, the Mystics' all-time leading scorer, moved on during free agency.Beard signed with the Los Angeles Sparks, where she will be reunited with former Mystics Marissa Coleman and Nicky Anosike.The opponent: Like the Mystics,the Skyalso missed the postseason last year. Like the Mystics, the Sky also did not stand pat, adding former all-stars Swin Cash and Ticha Penicheiro. Like the Mystics, it all starts inside for the Sky with the reigning WNBA defensive player of the year and 2012 Olympian Sylvia Fowles. The 6-foot-6 center averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds last season. Speaking of last season, the Sky swept the Mystics in four games.What's the outlook:If Lacey has her way, this team will run more, play sharing is caring basketball and offer greater resistance on the defensive end. The coach said 15 of the team's losses last season came down to thefinal two or three possessions. With all the new but experienced hands, well, on hand, expect better results in the clutch. Barring the unforeseen, don't count on another six-win season. Then again, the East is stacked so even noticeable improvement on the court might not lead to the playoffs. Then again, change is in the air.
The Nationals beat the Diamondbacks in their series finale on Thursday and by doing so inched closer to securing home field advantage in the NL Division Series. They earned the win despite playing without Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper, who remained out with injuries.
In order to make it happen, they needed contributions from unexpected places. Catcher Pedro Severino homered and walked. Second baseman Wilmer Difo also hit a home run, the first of his young MLB career. Michael Taylor had three hits and drove in two runs. Those three led the way on offense on a day their regulars - Trea Turner, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Danny Espinosa and Anthony Rendon - went a combined 2-for-16.
Rookie Reynaldo Lopez also chipped in with 3 2/3 innings of relief work. The coincidence that he, Severino and Difo all made their mark was not lost on them or manager Dusty Baker. The trio are all young players from the Dominican Republic.
"It was Dominican Republic Day," Baker said. Our Dominicans hit two home runs and pitched well... Maybe they had it mixed up, they thought today was Latin Day instead of yesterday."
Baker was referring to a special pregame ceremony at Nationals Park on Wednesday that featured Latin American flags on the field and a representative from the D.R. to throw out the first pitch.
The players picked up on it, as well.
“It was very fun and exciting," Lopez said through an interpreter. "He said as I came into the dugout to Dusty having known that Difo had hit a home run as well as Severino already and they’ve been doing a good job and I was pitching very well, he said ‘I guess today is really Latin day.’ It was just very humorous, but it was fun. And he kept repeating that because we were all performing so well for him, so it was great.”
"Very excited that all three of us were able to do a great job for the team today," Difo said through an interpreter. "Just keep working hard to show everybody that we deserve to be here and that we can contribute and help the team win. I’m just very excited about today."
Severino knows he will be on the playoff roster at this point. With the loss of Wilson Ramos to a season-ending injury, Severino is the next man up.
Difo and Taylor would need an injury or two to clear room for them. They are unlikely to make the final 25.
Lopez, though, is in a battle for the bullpen. Depending on how many pitchers they keep, Lopez could definitely find himself in that mix. And Baker is already talking like Lopez will be pitching in October.
"He's been working on some things," Baker said. "He picked up his tempo. He throws strikes. He appears unfazed by the situation or having to come into the game. And I'm just hoping that he continues that same mindset when we get to the playoffs because it's the same game. More at stake and the world's watching, but it's the same game."
Baker also dropped a hint about Severino that should be kept in mind over the next week.
"All of our young guys dont appear to be intimidated at all by being young. They're about to venture into territories that they haven't been before. And I told him, 'Hey, man, I want you to do the same thing as [Clayton] Kershaw if you're starting in L.A.' And he said OK and left it at that."
It sounds like Severino has at least a decent chance of starting Game 1 on Friday.
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Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz will be handing up the cleats after this season. Given his status as a sports legend for the New England area, it's only fitting that the home town send him out with style.
Fenway Park will have a very different look in the outfield as the Red Sox close out their regular season in a three-game series against Toronto starting on Friday. Here is what fans have to look forward to seeing:
Considering how much time I spend just trying to get my lawn to look green and grow grass, this is pretty darn impressive.