The Harrisburg Senators’ homestand ended the same way it began with the offense mired in a week-long slump as the Reading Fightin’ Phils won 4-2 on Wednesday night.
Despite seven hits and two walks, the Senators struggled to cobble sustained rallies together. The Senators put the leadoff batter on base in six of the nine innings but two double plays and poor at-bats contributed to only scoring once off those opportunities.
Harrisburg was hitless in five at-bats with runners in scoring position and the two runs they scored were a product of the two extra-base hits they had on the evening: a triple by Andrew Stevenson and a solo home run by Drew Ward.
“Running that lineup through we get guys in scoring position but it seems like it’s with two outs,” manager Matt LeCroy said. “The at-bats lately have been quick and early. A lot of early outs. It’s looking like they’re trying to not to strike out, instead of competing and battling.”
In the five games at FNB Field against the Baysox and Phillies, the Senators scored only 10 runs and collectively batted .191 while striking out 48 times.
“It’s just been a tough time offensively scoring runs,” LeCroy said.
Erick Fedde took the hill for his fourth start this season and although the righthander scattered only four hits in seven innings the Washington Nationals’ top pitching prospect collared the loss.
The big blow happened in the fifth inning when Fedde grooved a fastball to opposing pitcher Tom Eshelman who crushed it for a three-run home run. But both manager and pitching coach Chris Michalak pointed to another at-bat earlier in the frame when Fedde walked Mitch Walding as the key to the sequence of fateful events.
“It might not have been the pitch to the pitcher that got him trouble, but it was three hitters before with the walk,” Michalak said. “They always come back to bite you.”
“I thought what got him was when he pitched around the guy that was hitting a buck fifty,” LeCroy said with a slight exaggeration of Walding’s numbers so far this season.
ICYMI — Last Night’s Roll Call
Drew Ward popped his second home run of the season…Wander Suero and RC Orlan each threw a scoreless inning of relief…Ozzie Abreu was removed from the game after the bottom of the second inning for failing to run hard out of the box on a play he was thrown out at second base.
The entire Eastern League has a day off on Thursday before resuming play the next day. The Senators turn to starter Mark Blackmar when they take on the Curve at 6 PM in Altoona at Peoples Natural Gas Field on Friday night.
The early April beginning to the baseball season usually uncovers things that can be improved as the weather begins to turn warmer. For the Harrisburg Senators that has included situational hitting, shoring up the defense at times, and most notably the bullpen.
Over the season’s first 17 games, Harrisburg relievers have a cumulative 5.72 ERA over 56.2 innings of work. But upon closer inspection, much of that can be attributed to two pitchers: Jake Johansen and Jimmy Cordero. Without their numbers in the calculations, Senators’ relievers work at a very respectable earned run average of 3.05 with a 1.38 WHIP.
Johansen and Cordero were both called upon on Monday night out of the Senators pen in relief of starter Jaron Long. It was more of the same from them as turned a 2-1 game into a 9-1 laugher in favor of the Reading Fightin’ Phils.
“It got away from us there at the end,” manager Matt LeCroy said.
For Johansen, 2017 marks his first season at Double-A after four years in the lower levels of the Nationals system. The second round draft pick has struggled at Potomac the last two seasons and put up inflated numbers, but a strong showing against top prospects in last year’s Arizona Fall League helped ticket him for Harrisburg.
Johansen worked a commanding sixth frame on Monday night as the 26-year-old righthander struck out Mitch Walding and Jiandido Tromp before retiring Malquin Canelo on a routine groundout. But Johansen ran into trouble in his second inning of work as Kyle Martin punctuated the scoring with a two run home run to push the Reading advantage to four runs.
“It’s a tough league when you come up here and struggle because there is no wiggle room,” LeCroy added.
Cordero, on the other hand, is an Eastern League veteran. The 25-year-old fireballer was a member of the Fisher Cats and Fightin’ Phils the past two seasons before being acquired by the Nationals in a trade last November.
He has allowed at least one run in five of his six outings this season and opponents are batting .483 off the righthander. But it’s his last three appearances, including surrendering a grand slam on Monday, that are the ones I’m sure he’d like to forget. In only two combined innings, Cordero has allowed 14 runs on ten hits and seven walks.
“It’s just been a struggle for the both of them right now. That’s why they’re here,” LeCroy said. “We’ve got to do a better job of coaching them up and hopefully give them a chance.”
“We have to get those two guys right where they feel confident and comfortable.”
Harrisburg starter John Simms impressively worked through the top of the potent Bowie batting order in the first inning recording all three outs via strikeouts. But things started to unravel quickly for the righthander in the second frame.
Eastern League veteran Garabez Rosa led off the inning with an eight-pitch at-bat that culminated in a flare over the outstretched glove of second baseman Stephen Perez. Glynn Davis followed with a bunt that caught the Senators off guard with Perez late to cover first base.
The next batter, Adrian Marin, laced a single back up the middle that chased Rosa home from second base to give the Baysox a 1-0 lead. Bowie appeared on the verge of breaking the game wide open with a big inning. Reliever Ryan Brinley got up quickly in the Senators bullpen and started throwing with a purpose.
Simms struck out Jay Gonzalez to record the first out of the inning although it came at the cost of nine additional pitches. Erick Salcedo followed with a pop-up into shallow left field that Ozzie Abreu tracked down moving away from the infield dirt.
Despite settling down to record back-to-back outs, Simms got a visit from pitching coach Chris Michalak. Deep counts and tough at-bats had the 25-year-old quickly approaching the 40-pitch per inning limit imposed by the Nationals. If Simms were to hit that number, manager Matt LeCroy would have no choice but to remove him from the game regardless of the situation.
And coming to the plate was the hottest hitter on the Baysox, D.J. Stewart, who was already 6-for-10 in the series with a home run and two doubles. Simms fell behind 2-0 before getting Stewart to ground out to end the rally on the 35th pitch of the inning, a full count breaking ball. “I got out of there and I was just thankful I didn’t have to turn it over to the bullpen too early,” Simms said.
“That was a big inning,” LeCroy added. “It could have gotten pretty ugly, but he only gave up the one.”
Buoyed by the change of momentum, Harrisburg responded in the bottom half of the inning with a run-scoring double off the bat of Raudy Read and an RBI groundout from Spencer Kieboom to give the Senators a 2-1 advantage.
Pitching with the lead, Simms made some adjustments as he breezed through the next three innings facing the minimum number of batters. “I’m just happy to have gotten out of that inning when I did and then after that it was just going back to attacking them,” the Rice product said. “I got back into the zone and forced the action.”
Brinley and Phillips Valdez each worked two scoreless innings of relief to preserve the slim margin of victory as the Senators topped the Baysox in the rubber match of the series.
After posting a .285/.336/.425 slash line in 64 games with the Harrisburg Senators last year, Zach Collier earned a promotion to Triple-A Syracuse in late June. The veteran player had impressed the Nationals’ brass in his first season with the organization for his ability to play all three outfield positions as well as his considerable tools at the plate.
Despite the praise and extensive experience, Collier’s name was absent from all affiliates when minor league rosters were announced just days before the season began. An injury to his ankle late in spring training forced him to start the year on Harrisburg’s disabled list and assigned to extended spring training.
“The timing of his injury was bad for him,” manager Matt LeCroy said.
So instead of heading north with fellow Nationals minor leaguers, Collier toiled away in Florida recovering and rehabilitating. But like much of the struggles and hurdles that have come Collier’s way in the past, he doesn’t dwell on the negative but instead learns from every step so he can apply it in the future.
“I just had to keep in mind that while I was down there I could take advantage of that time to work on some things and I feel like my swing was one of those things,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I had the greatest spring. I didn’t feel all that comfortable. So I think that time I had down there was big for me.”
For the 26-year-old it was just another example of finding the positive when so many others wouldn’t.
In his young life, Collier has already undergone two heart surgeries for a defect, an anomalous left coronary artery, that restricted the amount of oxygen his heart could receive. His first procedure took place when he was a 16-year-old high school sophomore and his second after his career in the Philadelphia organization washed out after six middling seasons in the minors. Collier played the entire 2015 season with the independent Lancaster Barnstormers to prove to Major League organizations that he was both healthy and still as talented as ever.
After his ankle healed and he was game ready, Collier joined the Senators before their series last weekend in Bowie. The outfielder played sparingly in the last week and had amassed only 12 at-bats in limited action before Saturday night’s game against the same Baysox at FNB Field.
In his first at-bat, Collier crushed an 0-1 offering over the bullpen and boardwalk in right field to pace the Senators an early 3-0 lead off pitcher Chris Tillman, who was starting on a MLB rehab assignment. It was an advantage on the scoreboard the Senators would never relinquish. “I take an at-bat at a time regardless of who is on the mound,” Collier said.
“That was good for him and good for our club,” LeCroy said. “That was a big run.”
Getting consistent playing time is going to be difficult with Andrew Stevenson, Alec Keller, and Yadiel Hernandez entrenched as the starting outfield. “I think he can be a big part of this team even though he’s not going to be in there every day,” LeCroy said.
But once again Collier finds the positive attitude in the circumstance. “Going through this is helping me to prepare myself to come off the bench when we play National League games,” the outfielder said. “Learning how to have a quality at-bat and put the bat on the ball.”
LeCroy is relying on the veteran to be a presence in the clubhouse and on the diamond for his young squad. “Once he gets going, we saw what can happen last year. He can carry you for a while.”
It’s a phrase that often gets bandied around clubhouses and locker rooms for any sport at almost every level. Baseball is no different as it causes managers to lose their hair, grow ulcers, chain smoke in the tunnel, or always wonder ‘what if’.
After struggling offensively for most of the game like the Senators did on Thursday night in Hartford, a manager hopes his players deliver in the clutch when that chance finally comes up in a key spot but he knows the odds and reality of the situation.
But when that chance comes up again and again like it did on Friday night against the Baysox, a manager expects his players to come through at least once or twice. Instead, the Senators came up short with every opportunity they were given as the team went 0-for-15 while batting with runners in scoring position.
This was not a collective stretch of bad luck, either, as the Senators hit exactly one ball out of the infield and struck out eight times in those 15 plate appearances. It was a pitiful display of situational hitting by the team as a whole.
“To me you have to have some confidence in that situation that you can do it,” manager Matt LeCroy said. “I feel like some of the guys now are a little tentative. Taking pitches they should hit, and swinging at balls they should take.”
“Some of it is lack of experience, but those things can get you to the big leagues if you do them well.”
The game was a nip and tuck affair through the first seven innings when it was still an eminently winnable contest. Don’t let the final score fool you. The game was much closer than that until Senators reliever Jimmy Cordero dumped a tanker full of gasoline on the small campfire. But early in the game, when it still mattered, the Senators had three opportunities to score by making an out as long as the ball was put in play to anyone other than the pitcher or third baseman.
They failed all three times.
“We just have to get better at it. That’s how you win games,” LeCroy said. “We work on it every day, but you have to be able to carry that over into the game.”
In a scoreless pitcher’s duel, the importance of every pitch and every play is amplified. So in the top of the fourth inning when home plate umpire Erich Bacchus called an automatic ball on Harrisburg starter Jaron Long for a clock violation, it had the potential to be the defining moment for the fate of the Senators in their Wednesday afternoon tilt with the Hartford Yard Goats.
The disputed call came on a full count and granted Hartford batter Ryan McMahon first base. Since Ashley Graeter had led off the inning with a double into the right-center field gap, this put Yard Goat runners on first and second base with no one out.
Manager Matt LeCroy came out to argue the call two separate times, but Bacchus’s mind wasn’t being swayed. The umpire ruled that Long took too long to come set despite McMahon only being ready in the batter’s box for about eight seconds. “It’s odd when you’ll give a hitter a warning, but not a pitcher,” LeCroy said. “It’s just the dynamic of the clock and when to start it if a guy steps out.”
“You have to look at it as a learning experience,” Long said trying to put the call in perspective. “The whole point of the rule is to speed of the game but in reality it slowed it down.”
The 25-year-old right-hander didn’t let the call or ensuing controversy affect him though. “That bothered him for about five seconds. It bothered me more than him,” LeCroy said. “He just kept making pitches.”
Long induced cleanup hitter Drew Weeks to pop up to first baseman Neftali Soto on the infield grass, but then surrendered a hard hit single to Collin Ferguson to load the bases for Hartford with only one out. Omar Carrizales followed with a shallow pop fly down the left field foul line that Yadiel Hernandez corralled. Graeter didn’t chance tagging up on the play since Hernandez was only about 20 feet from the dirt cutout when he finally made the catch.
That brought Dom Nunez to the plate and Long quickly fell behind the Hartford catcher with three straight balls. A mound visit by catcher Spencer Kieboom settled Long down and focused him on the task at hand as he worked it back to a full count and retired Nunez on a routine fly ball to Khayyan Norfork on the payoff pitch. It would turn out to be the Yard Goats best chance to get on the scoreboard the rest of the day.
“His back was against the wall and he made some big pitches,” LeCroy said.
“Maybe it was a blessing in disguise,” Long pondered about the automatic ball call. “Maybe he (McMahon) would have hit that pitch off the wall and they would have scored a run.”
Long battling back in the frame and putting another zero up on the board was the momentum shift the Senators were looking for in the bottom half of the inning. Mario Lisson doubled off the left field wall and Kieboom followed with a shot into the seats on the next pitch to give Harrisburg the 2-0 lead they would never relinquish.
“Sometimes little things like that get your team going,” Long said.
As for Long, the Ohio State product went six scoreless innings allowing just four hits and the aforementioned walk in picking up his first victory of the season. Long worked quickly and coaxed early contact off the Hartford bats in tossing only 72 pitches without striking a single batter out.
“They were swinging early. They showed that the first two games of the series and I just stayed with the plan,” Long said.
“He was outstanding,” LeCroy said. “He kept them off balance and got a lot of weak fly balls.”
“Two years in a row we’ve been burned by the clock. I wish the clock would blow up.” – – LeCroy on the pitch clock.
Senators’ starting pitcher John Simms made it three straight quality starts for the Harrisburg rotation as the right-hander tossed six innings in his 2017 debut. “The first two innings they hit some bullets but he settled down. He gave up two hits and two runs,” manager Matt LeCroy said. “He gave us a chance.”
LeCroy also made it official that Simms will remain in the rotation while Mark Blackmar, who started the doubleheader nightcap on Saturday, will shift to the bullpen as the de facto swing man.
Although it was only a low leverage situation trailing 4-0 in the ninth inning, reliever Jimmy Cordero pitched a scoreless frame and impressed his manager. “I like what I saw from him tonight,” LeCroy said.
This early in the season, reliever usage is more about scheduling than it is about game situation. “You’re just trying to get them all in and make sure they get enough rest,” LeCroy said. “You want to put Jimmy in a big game that we’re winning or tied.”
The Senators struggled stringing hits together and taking advantage the few times they had opportunities as they were shut out for the first time this season. The team let nine men on base for the game yet went only 1-for-4 with runners in scoring position. It doesn’t take Stephen Hawking to figure out most baserunners got only as far as first base before be stranded. “Offensively, we had a couple of chances but they made some good plays,” LeCroy said. “We had a lot of early contact outs, way too many.”
After the final game of the homestand on Wednesday, the Senators travel to Bowie to take on the Baysox Thursday through Saturday in their first series against an American League opponent. This allows the team to get one more bat in the lineup as designated hitter instead of the pitcher taking hacks from the nine hole. In Harrisburg’s case that means 12-year minor league veteran Mario Lisson will get the majority of added at-bats as he brings his potent bat to the lineup.
When Greg Ross was promoted to Harrisburg last year, few knew what to expect from the right-hander taking a spot in the Senators’ rotation. After all, Ross found himself on an independent ball team in New Jersey after getting released from the Baltimore Orioles’ organization and had made just ten appearances with the Potomac Nationals since signing with Washington in late April.
No one saw coming the historic run of outings that Ross managed to string together over a month and a half last summer.
In his first four starts, the Maryland native tossed seven scoreless innings each time out. In fact, Ross began his tenure with the Senators setting a modern day record for the club throwing 30 consecutive innings without allowing a run. Ross yielded runs in only four of the 54 innings he pitched for Harrisburg on his way to a 5-1 record and 0.83 ERA.
Making his season debut Monday night at FNB field, it was more of the same from the 27-year-old pitcher: Greg Ross just doing Greg Ross things.
The Frostburg State product mastered the Hartford Yard Goats lineup scattering three hits over six scoreless innings while striking out five and walking none. He needed only 63 pitches in the effort as he poured in strike after quality strike to stay ahead in the count and in command all evening.
“He’s able to throw the ball over the plate and get people out in the strike zone. He’s challenging hitters and that’s what you have to do if you want to pitch at higher levels,” pitching coach Chris Michalak said. “Greg does a very good job of missing barrels.”
Maturity and attitude are as much a part of Ross’s success as execution. “I feel comfortable in my own skin. In throwing all of my pitches for strikes and competing,” Ross said. “That’s been my factor as a pitcher, going out and laying it all out there every time I get the ball.”
To give you an idea of the competitor that Ross is, manager Matt LeCroy points to the pitcher’s at-bat in the second inning with two outs and a runner on third base. The lifetime .122 hitter worked to a 2-1 count, fouled off three straight pitches, and then drove a Luis Niebla offering into the right-centerfield gap for a stand-up double. One pitch later Ross coasted home with another run on an Andrew Stevenson single to push the Senators’ lead out to 3-0. “I was just trying to make contact with a man on third,” Ross said. “Any time you can do that to help the team out and help your cause it’s definitely a fun thing.”
“The biggest thing is taking it easy around the bases. I figure if I hit it farther or in the gaps I don’t have to run as hard.”
That’s probably a smart idea from Ross whose 2016 season was interrupted when he suffered an injury in Altoona trying to beat out an infield single on July 17. He did manage to come back and throw a pair of one-inning appearances during the last week of the season though to end on a high note. “(Trainer) Eric (Montague) and the guys did a really good job getting me back healthy and to head into winter ball finishing out the season in October and November,” Ross said. “That was big for me.”
Ross quickly re-signed with the Nationals and says he couldn’t be happier staying in the organization. “I know he’s disappointed coming back to Double-A, but like I told him in spring training if you look at the history of the Nationals and Harrisburg a lot of guys went straight to the big leagues from here,” LeCroy said. “(Nationals’ General Manager) Mike Rizzo met with all of the coaches at the end of spring training and told us they’ll pull from anywhere so just make sure you have them ready.”
If Ross keeps putting up the numbers in Harrisburg he has, he’ll be impossible to ignore.
Any way you cut it, Austen Williams had a pretty miserable 2016 season.
He came into the year as the Nationals’ 19th ranked prospect per Baseball America and was assigned to Double-A Harrisburg out of spring training. In ten starts with the Senators, Williams struggled to a 1-7 record with a 5.68 ERA and 1.74 WHIP before a demotion back to Potomac in early June. His return to the Carolina League wasn’t much better as he posted insignificant improvements to his numbers over the remaining 16 appearances.
But the Texas State product had a strong spring and on Sunday afternoon he showed his coaches, teammates, and the Harrisburg fans that he belongs on this pitching staff at this level. Williams tossed six stellar innings while matching a career-high in strikeouts with nine. The effort earned him his first win of the season in the Senators’ 6-2 victory over the Altoona Curve.
“It was pretty impressive what he was able to do today,” pitching coach Chris Michalak said. “He moved the fastball around, mixed in his change-up and his breaking ball. He did a really good job.”
“For me, it was his best outing in Double-A,” manager Matt LeCroy added.
Williams made some adjustments in the off-season, but the biggest thing is a different mindset for the 6’3″ right-hander. “From experience, you learn over failures and successes you have that sticking to your strengths is really the biggest key if you want to do well,” he said. “I just did a good job of sticking to what I do well which is throwing fastballs down in the zone and throwing strikes. I was able to do that most of the game.”
Michalak echoed his pupil’s sentiments: “It’s trouble when they try to do something that they’re not capable of like gaining four miles per hour or two feet of break on a pitch instead of just locating their pitch. It’s all part of the learning process.”
Williams did a masterful job living around the knees with all of his pitches especially his fastball as he induced six ground ball outs. “When he’s down in the zone, he’s got good sink and it has late action so it’s tough for guys to square up the ball,” Michalak said.
After posting zeroes in the first five frames, the Curve finally got to Williams for two runs on three hits and a hit batsman in the top of the sixth inning. But even then, Williams managed to compose himself and strand runners on second and third as he got the next two batters to strike out and fly out to end the threat. “Even in the sixth when he ran into trouble, he only gave up two and did a nice job keeping us in it,” LeCroy said. “He made pitches to get out of it and we were able to come back and score some runs to get him that win.”
Last season with his confidence badly shaken, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see Williams keeping a watchful eye on the dugout expecting his manager to rescue him from a similar situation. Williams made it pretty clear with his performance that this is a new year with new results.
“We protected him last year and now it’s time to go and see what you can do,” LeCroy said. “That’s part of development.”
Baseball is often described as a game of failure. After all, a .300 hitter is going to fail seven out of ten times. It is often how you deal with that adversity as a player that defines your makeup and ultimate success.
Short memories are for the better. Forgetting what you did in the previous game, at-bat, or even pitch and not letting it affect you going forward is a tough trick to pull off but one that sometimes is very necessary to be successful.
Nowhere was this more evident than Adrian Sanchez’s key at-bat in the fourth inning of Saturday’s first game of the doubleheader. With runners on second and third and the Senators holding a 1-0 lead, Sanchez came to the plate looking to deliver a blow that would increase the lead.
“His Achilles’ heel has been being too aggressive, chasing out of the zone with runners in scoring position,” manager Matt LeCroy said. “He starts to swing just to swing. He’s too inconsistent with swinging at strikes in that situation.”
Altoona starter Brandon Waddell quickly put Sanchez in a 0-2 count and seemingly had him where he wanted. But Sanchez was able to fight off two pitches with a couple of ugly, defensive swings to keep himself alive in the at-bat.
Waddell’s next pitch was a mistake and Sanchez didn’t miss it.
The 26-year-old infielder turned on the elevated pitch and drove it into Ollie’s Cheap Seats in left field to put the Senators up 4-0 on their way to the season’s first victory, 6-4, over the Curve.
“They threw him a ball that he could get. That’s what he can do,” LeCroy said. “I know it felt good for him to get that one. That was a big one for us.”
After going 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position on Friday night, the Senators changed their fortunes in the doubleheader opener. Not only were they 4-of-9, but five of their six runs scored with two outs. Sanchez’s homer and their fifth inning rally to plate two additional runs all occurred with two outs.
Harrisburg’s game two starter Mark Blackmar probably wants to forget about how that one began. Altoona’s Pablo Reyes deposited the second pitch of the game over the left field wall and it went downhill from there.
It took the Curve only five batters to hit for the cycle as they plated three runs. It could have been even worse but Kevin Kramer ran into an out on the basepaths and gave the Senators some life on a 9-3-6-5-4 double play.
But with only two relievers really available out of the pen, Blackmar was going to “wear it” for a couple of innings regardless of the outcome. But the veteran right-hander settled down and allowed only one more hit over the next three innings as he kept the Senators within striking distance.
Playing a doubleheader on only the second day of the season allowed LeCroy to get his bench players some additional playing time. Utility player Khayyan Norfork started in left field and gunned down a Curve runner with a laser throw to home in game one and Stephen Perez and Spencer Kieboom got the call in the nightcap.
Everyone in the bullpen has already pitched in one of the three games as well. The remaining players without an appearance are the remaining starting pitchers: Austen Williams, Greg Ross, and John Simms.