Baseball’s non-waiver trade deadline came and went on Monday as the Washington Nationals made one move to acquire reliever Brandon Kintzler from the Minnesota Twins for lefty pitcher Tyler Watson. Harrisburg fans breathed a sigh of relief however as Victor Robles, the Nationals’ top rated prospect who played his first four games on City Island this past weekend, wasn’t swapped as part of any deal.
Robles is the prototypical five tool player and Sunday almost all of them were on display for the Senators faithful at FNB Field as the outfielder went 2-for-4 at the plate to raise his batting average to .231 in only seven games at Double-A.
“He has already gotten us some big hits in a short period of time that he’s been here,” manager Matt LeCroy said. “He’s still a work in progress but you can see what everyone raves about.”
Robles had a number of firsts as he hit his first home run and stole his first base at this level. In his second at-bat of the game, he showed the easy pop that he generates with his lightning quick wrists as he launched a ball out of the park to the right of the ribbon board in left field. His stolen base came late in the game to get into scoring position before eventually scoring an insurance run on a sacrifice fly.
“The thing that has impressed me the most is how hard he plays,” LeCroy said. “He backs up every play, he moves on every pitch. He works extremely hard every day.”
Throughout the four-game series against the Portland Sea Dogs, Robles showed some quick reads and jumps coupled with his speed and route efficiency to track down balls all over FNB Field’s spacious center field. The only thing we haven’t seen from the Dominican yet in his short time with the Senators is the strength and accuracy of his arm. But LeCroy noted that has looked good in previous games and practice: “Defensively, he has thrown the ball really well and down.”
For all that, what impressed the most on Sunday was his first and last at-bat of the game when he flew out to left field and drew a walk, respectively.
Leading off the Senators’ half of the first, Robles found himself in an early 0-2 hole. The 20-year-old showed maturity beyond his age as he fouled off pitches that he couldn’t do anything with and held up on breaking balls out of the strike zone down and away. He worked the count back to full and on the ensuing pitch was caught a little off-balance as he basically hit a one-handed fly ball that carried all the way to the warning track in left field. Fifteen feet to the left and it lands in the Ollie’s Cheap Seats and he has his first home run in Double-A. Instead it was just the first out of the game, but one that showed the type of dynamic hitter he can be at the top of the lineup.
“He doesn’t have a whole lot of at-bats yet, but we’ve seen glimpses where he has seven, eight, nine-pitch at-bats which for anybody is pretty impressive but for especially getting down in the count early and not really changing his approach,” hitting coach Brian Rupp said. “We preach that two-strike toughness and being a tough out. He is able to take those nasty ones and get enough to foul them off and work himself back into a count. To be 20 and be able to do that is pretty impressive.”
His last at-bat was similar to his first. He fell behind 1-2, even getting hit on the right hand while trying to bunt for a base hit, before he held up on two breaking balls in the dirt and checked his swing on one up and in to draw the leadoff walk in the eighth inning.
“He’s a kid that loves to play, you can just tell and he always has a smile on his face,” Rupp said. “He didn’t come in trying to do too much or anything, but it’s human nature he wants to prove he belongs. You can really see him settle in a little bit and have other parts of his game that are starting to show now.”
Robles’ talent has the 20-year-old knocking on the door of the Major Leagues. After the Nationals declined to include him any trade package on Monday, clearly they also see he is their centerfielder of the very near future.
With a little peace of mind for his mind, Andrew Robinson is on the forefront of wearable pitcher protection
Since being assigned to the Harrisburg Senators from Extended Spring Training on May 16, reliever Andrew Robinson has picked up right where he left off from last year. The 29-year-old right-hander is still striking out over 10 batters per nine innings and is once again a reliable arm in the bullpen for manager Matt LeCroy. Saturday night in Portland, Robinson pocketed his second save of the season when he worked a perfect ninth to secure the one-run victory over the Sea Dogs.
Although Robinson has looked like the same pitcher he did in 2016, that’s not entirely true. All season he has taken the mound with a piece of molded carbon fiber and Kevlar tucked inside the brim of his cap above his right ear to potentially protect him from fierce comebackers.
It’s the latest evolution, three years in development, to come up with something both protective and functional for pitchers to wear. Recent years have seen a handful of pitchers try out an oversized foam hat or the half-helmet during parts of spring training, but this is definitely much less cumbersome and imperceptible to the human eye than those attempts.
Robinson was turned onto the product from his off-season workout partner, Houston Astros’ pitcher Collin McHugh, who wears one and is big advocate for the inner hat head protection created and sold by SaferSports Technologies.
“This year when I was down in Florida I started wearing it to just get comfortable with it,” Robinson said. “The first time I wore it after about ten minutes I forgot I had it on. I don’t notice it on the mound. The only thing is I used to take my hat off a lot. If you do that, it will slide around.”
SaferSports Technologies and founder Matt Meier put the guards through a very comprehensive set of tests on a dummy head with pitches ranging from 49 to 93 MPH. They determined that using the guards and the way it disperses energy on impact cut the level of force in half when compared to being hit without the guard.
Robinson knows the guard still leaves him vulnerable to head injuries off of batted balls, but he also knows it will reduce the damage. “It’s still going to hurt, but it may save your life,” the reliever said. “For me, it’s a little peace of mind.”
Professional pitchers only have about one-third of a second to react to a batted ball, but youth pitchers throwing at a shorter distance may have even less. With skull fractures occurring at an exit velocity of only 58 miles per hour, Robinson sees the benefits not just for himself and his teammates but also for making baseball safer for the younger set.
Earlier this season, he went on social media praising the product in hopes of raising awareness of its existence. “That’s why I posted it on Instagram for whatever kids are following me to say if you or your parents are looking for something along those lines where you don’t look goofy, check it out.”
“It’s a really cool thing. You can’t even tell I’m wearing it.”
The Senators try for their first series sweep of the season as they finish out the three game set against the Richmond Flying Squirrels. The Senators won their second straight against the Squirrels on a walk-off single by Darian Sandford in the bottom of the tenth inning. The Senators won their first home series since they took two out of three from Bowie April 21 to April 23. Richmond has lost six consecutive games after they were swept in three games on the prior series against New Hampshire.
Darian Sandford knocked the second walk-off hit of the year for the Senators with his 10th inning RBI single, in just his second game of the season. Sandford is 3-8 in his first two games with two steals after he played the first part of the year with the Lancaster Barnstormers.
ONE HIT WONDERS
In game two of the series the Senators set a new season-high by limiting the Flying Squirrels to one hit in ten innings. CJ Hinijosa hit a groundball into left field with two outs in the sixth inning to record the lone Squirrels hit of the games. John Simms joined Derek Eitel as the only two Senators pitchers to throw one-hitters through at least five innings this year.
Kyle McGowin makes his Senators debut in the series finale. The right-hander went 1-6 with a 6.31 ERA over nine starts with Triple-A Syracuse before being added to the Senators. McGowin was acquired along with Austin Adams from the Angels as part of the Danny Espinosa trade. The 25-year-old was originally drafted by the Angels in the 5th round of the 2013 draft from Savannah State.
The Squirrels counter with starter Jose Flores. The right-hander is 1-1 with a 2.31 ERA across 16 games and four starts on the season. Flores shutout the Senators through five one hit innings in his last start against the club on May 29. The 28-year-old was signed by the Giants as a minor league free agent on December 9, 2016.
Phillips Valdez showed flashes of brilliance along with the growing pains of a then 24-year-old as he made 16 starts for the Harrisburg Senators last season. He failed to get out of the first inning against the Reading Fightin’ Phils on July 3rd and then followed that up with back-to-back starts where he walked 7 and 6 batters in only 4.0 and 3.2 innings respectively. But then he was also the same guy who finished the year with four straight quality starts as he used the natural movement of his pitches to work out of traffic.
2017 marks the first season Valdez is pitching exclusively out of the bullpen. The decision to convert the lithe Dominican to a full-time reliever wasn’t an easy one for the Washington brass but it’s where they believe he ultimately has the most value. “Over the past few years we started him to maximize his reps, continue to develop himself as a pitcher, and be able to field his position,” Mark Scialabba, Nationals’ Director of Player Development, said. “But with his repertoire, we felt like his best shot as a big leaguer would probably be out of the bullpen.”
“I give him a lot of credit to be able to get up to Double-A as a starter and have success last year. It shows you that he can help us down the road. The next evolution in his career is getting this opportunity to see if he can do it in short stints with high leverage situations.”
In his first 10 appearances out of the pen, Valdez looked similar to how he did as a starter. Some days good (2 IP, 0 R, 2 H, 3 K on April 15 against Bowie), some days bad (1 IP, 3 R, 3 H, 1 BB on May 6 against Hartford). But by mid-May with a 6.00 ERA, 1.73 WHIP, and batting average against of .300 you can guess that the bad outings outnumbered the good. His early season struggles all culminated with the right-hander going on the disabled list on May 16. Pitching coach Chris Michalak used the reliever’s stint on the DL as an opportunity to improve some mechanical issues in his delivery. Michalak said they compacted Valdez’s delivery a little bit, improved his posture to stay on top of the ball, and got his arm slot in a more natural position that he can easily repeat.
The teacher sees the work of the student paying off since being activated on May 26. “He’s doing a good job of hitting a consistent slot where he’s getting run and sink on the ball,” Michalak said. “It may not have that much depth to it, but it’s down in the zone.”
In his three most recent appearances, Valdez has worked 3.2 scoreless innings allowing only one hit, a single on Saturday in Erie, while needing only 36 pitches to record 11 outs. You can see the differences in both posture and arm slot as well as the movement Valdez gets on his pitches before and after the tweaks to his delivery.
Another benefit of pitching in relief for Valdez is his ability to monitor his checkpoints and fine-tune his delivery on the fly. “Coming out of the pen, he doesn’t think he has to sustain it for such a long period of time,” Michalak said. “I think he’s at a point now where if something does go wrong, it’s not going to be four or five hitters for him to find out what’s going on. It’s only four or five pitches and he’ll figure it out. If it goes awry, it’s a minor adjustment instead of a major overhaul.”
“We like what we see so far,” Scialabba said. “He showed really well in the spring and impressed some of our staff that hadn’t seen him before. We’re proud of where he is right now.”
The offense, once rounding into form in May, has been stifled in the first five games of June. The Senators have hit only .150 (21 for 140) since the calendar turned and have been shutout twice. That’s a far cry from their .266 clip in May that was in the top half among Eastern League teams and only six points behind the leader.
The seven runs they have scored in the five game since June 1 have all come via home runs. Orioles’ legendary manager Earl Weaver might have liked that approach, but he also preferred the three-run variety. For the Senators, they’ve only managed solo and two-run home runs during this stretch.
Despite having a variety of players that can go deep, as evident by the five different batters (Isaac Ballou, Khayyan Norfork, Neftali Soto, Mario Lisson, and Jose Marmolejos) who did so in the last five games, the Senators can’t rely on the long ball. They need to grind at-bats, sustain rallies, and turn the lineup over if they expect to compete on a nightly basis.
BROOMS OUT IN ERIE
The last time the Senators were swept in a four-game series at Erie was all the way back on April 23-26, 2009 as Ryan Strieby and Maxwell Leon drove in a combined 19 runs for the SeaWolves in the set.
MLB Debut: April 30
Harrisburg stats (2016)
136 g, .282/.344/.341
77 runs, 39 RBI, 56 SB
In 2016, Rafael Bautista proved to the doubters that he could hit at the upper levels of the minors as he put together consistent at-bats for the entire season. Sure, he always had speed to burn and the centerfielder set a single season modern franchise record for the Senators for stolen bases. But it was Bautista’s increased command of the strike zone and batting eye that saw him draw a career-best 45 walks. The number of times he bunted for a base hit, even when the other team knew it was coming, were too many to count. The Nationals were impressed enough to add Bautista to the 40-man roster in the off-season.
The 24-year-old Dominican was promoted to Washington after Adam Eaton went down with a season-ending injury. Bautista went 1-for-8 in 5 games during his brief call-up with the Nationals.
This content was originally found in Issue No. 5 of this year’s Senators Program
When Matt Stairs arrived on City Island in the spring of 1991, he came to Harrisburg with the goal of focusing on his defense. The previous season Stairs had committed 39 errors at West Palm Beach and Jacksonville while playing third base and shortstop.
“I just had a bad year defensively,” Stairs told Nick Horvath of The Patriot-News. “Looking back, I believe it was lack of concentration. Improving myself defensively is my top goal this season.”
Stairs could afford to focus on his defense. Hitting had never been an issue for the Fredericton, New Brunswick native. Just that off-season Stairs had won the batting title in the Mexican Pacific winter league with a .330 average.
“I don’t mean to sound boastful, but I know I’m going to hit,” Stairs said.
The versatile infielder was right. From the outset, Stairs was a .300 hitter who sustained that average throughout the season while carrying the Senators to an 87-53 record and the regular season championship in the Eastern League. But Stairs wrote his name in the record books and in Harrisburg lore thanks to the last 22 games of the season.
On August 11, manager Mike Quade held the then 23-year- old out of the starting lineup after Stairs was mired in an 0-for- 14 slump. The day off re-energized Stairs and according to him it gave an opportunity to regroup. The next night he had four hits and didn’t stop his hot streak for the rest of the season.
Stairs hit .467 (43 for 92) in the remaining games with six home runs and 31 runs driven in. “I had a lot of extra-base hits and RBI in August. I didn’t want anybody to wake me up,” Stairs told The Patriot-News Skip Hutter.
For his efforts, Stairs was voted the league’s most valuable player. “This year in pro ball is like a dream come true. Being an all-star, the MVP and the league’s leading hitter this year has been the highlight of my career,” Stairs said.
Not bad for a guy who didn’t take up baseball until high school and learned the game while watching it on television.
The Wit and Wisdom of Matt Stairs
“I’m not going to lie, it’s fun. I try to hit home runs and that’s it.”
“Swing like you live — hard.”
“When I signed the professional contract, I figured it would be awesome to get to Double-A.”
“I’ve got a beer gut. I’ve got a goatee and long hair. I’m a rebel. I enjoy life. I don’t think I’m better than anyone. I always treat people with respect, because if I didn’t, my old man would whup my ass.”
“I’ve never turned down a fastball, and I never will. I’ll be swinging at fastballs till I’m 50. They might be slow-pitch fastballs, but I’ll be swinging at them.”
“Being a hitting coach is like being a bartender. You need to have a good ear. You need to listen to everybody. You need to take every piece of information you’re getting from players and try to give them something they can use.”
“I was a better hockey player than a baseball player. Hockey had always been my No. 1 sport. I’ve had people tell me they wished I had stayed in hockey…There were a few chances to go with Junior A teams in Ontario, but that was at the same time I got the chance to sign a pro baseball contract. The decision was easy. Baseball is more money, and it’s warmer.”
A CHANGE IS GONNA COME
Slowly the Senators bullpen is starting to round into form. The return of Andrew Robinson helps a great deal, as does Erick Fedde moving to a reliever role. Manager Matt LeCroy was calling for guys to step up and some have heeded the skipper’s call.
Derek Self has put up zeroes the last five games and has given the team badly needed innings when the starter has exited early. Wander Suero looks like a dominant shutdown closer as the right-hander has allowed just one run and struck out 13 over his past 13 innings, which spans his last ten appearances.
Not to be forgotten, Ryan Brinley has also strung four quality outings in a row together where he hasn’t allowed an earned run over 6.2 innings. Opposing batters are hitting .160 against him with only four singles during that stretch.
It’s not like the 24-year-old right-hander was pitching badly before that either. Brinley sports a 2.61 ERA with a 1.016 WHIP and 5:1 strikeout to walk ratio in 14 appearances over 20.2 innings this year. Half of the earned runs he’s given up this season were on one swing of the bat, a three run home run, in Trenton on May 2.
But there has been a change lately with Brinley. The Nationals 2015 27th round draft pick out of Sam Houston State is attacking hitters more and trusting his stuff. All signs that point to a maturing and productive reliever for the Senators. “Ryan is realizing what he is,” pitching coach Chris Michalak said. “He’s starting to recognize what his strengths are and what makes him effective.”
LeCroy points to a better usage by Brinley of the one plus pitch in his arsenal: the change-up. “In big situations, he’s not afraid to go to it,” LeCroy said. “I think that’s what he needs because that what he is. It will allow his fastball which is 90-91 mph to play a little higher.”
“A hitter can sit on a change-up all he wants but if the pitcher has fastball arm speed and the spin is the same and everything looks the same, the brain can’t register it that quickly,” Michalak said. “The brain tells the hitter it’s a fastball and it doesn’t matter how much you think a change-up is coming.”
WAKE ME UP BEFORE YOU GO-GO
Baseball is a sport that over the 140-game minor league schedule falls into its own pattern and routine. The players, many college-age or slightly older, need the structure that a daily baseball schedule demands of their time.
One of those things that does not fall easily into a ballplayer’s daily routine is the much maligned start times before noon during the so called Education Days. The Senators have played two at home so far in May and this upcoming week will play two back-to-back on Wednesday and Thursday in Erie.
Players for both teams struggle with the adjustment to their routine, but the Senators have not looked pretty in their two games. Admittedly it’s a small sample size, but so far Harrisburg is batting .197 (13-for-66) while their opponents are batting .316 (24-for-76).
“You’re not going to have them out there at 8 o’clock doing stuff, but you have to figure out a way to get yourself ready to pitch and play,” LeCroy said. “That’s my biggest fear. Any day where their routine changes, you want to make sure they’re ready.”
Speaking of day games, the combination of extreme heat and thousands of kids eating pretty much whatever they wanted this past Thursday was a chemistry experiment gone awry. The stadium crews were cleaning up vomit on a regular basis all over the concourse forcing one person with knowledge of the situation to compare it to a scene at a frat house.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“I think our team is playing together. They’re pulling for one another. I think the chemistry is all there.” – – LeCroy
MLB Debut: April 30
Harrisburg stats (2015)
0-2, 7.20 ERA, 1.87 WHIP
3g, 15 IP, 6 K, 9 BB
After an impressive start to the season at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, Nick Pivetta got the call when Aaron Nola was placed on the 10-day disabled list for a balky back.
On Sunday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, Pivetta made his Major League debut for the Phillies. The 24-year-old righthander collared the loss but threw well as he scattered nine hits over five innings and struck out five. “It was all nerves,” Pivetta told MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki. “It was, ‘Holy cow. I’m here. Now let’s focus and do what you’ve been doing to get yourself here.’ It was hard to differentiate those two things, but once I got into that fourth, fifth inning, it was good. I was good again. I was able to get ahead of hitters more. I was able to use my changeup, able to use my slider, and it felt a lot more comfortable.”
Pivetta was traded to the Phillies at the trade deadline in 2015 while a Harrisburg Senator in the deal for Jonathan Papelbon.
Look anywhere but the 1-2 won-loss record and Erick Fedde’s start to the 2017 campaign is sure to impress. He currently ranks in the top five in the Eastern League in earned run average (1.80), WHIP (0.96), and batting average against (.178) in four starts.
But it’s not just the numbers that point to a better pitcher this year than what we saw at the end of last season. Fedde has shown a maturation this season in how he is attacking hitters and trying to force early, weak contact instead of going for the high strikeout total.
“I think he’s seeing the benefit of using all of his pitches, like his change-up and how he can get quick outs with that,” pitching coach Chris Michalak said.
“With his fastball he can get guys out in the zone with his stuff. He doesn’t have to strike everybody out. That allows him to go deeper into ballgames when he is pitch efficient.”
Manager Matt LeCroy points to a pitcher Fedde shared a clubhouse with this spring as someone the right-hander should emulate.
“Look at (Max) Scherzer, since he came to the National League he’s able to go deeper in the games since he’s getting early contact,” LeCroy said. “For me Fedde’s goal should be putting that ball in play within the first two pitches.”
CATCHING TO CONTACT
With another catcher’s interference on Friday night in Altoona, Raudy Read has now been called for the infraction three times already in the young season. This isn’t something Read has a history of doing either. He went the whole 2016 season at Potomac without it happening, and you have to go back to mid-August 2015 when the backstop was playing for Hagerstown when he got dinged twice in the same week.
HITTING TO CONTACT
One Altoona player the Senators’ pitching staff will be glad to not see again until the first week of June is Connor Joe. The first baseman wore the Senators out in all seven games the two teams have played thus far this season. Joe is batting .588 (10-for-17) with two doubles, one triple, and five runs driven in against the Senators while only hitting .174 against the rest of the league.
In the final contest of the last homestand, Andrew Stevenson led off the game against Reading’s Tom Eshelman with a shot down into the right field corner that allowed Stevenson to slide into third base safely. That triple marked the first one for Harrisburg this season as they were the last team to notch one in the Eastern League.
With the unseasonably warm April, it might be easy to forget how bitterly cold it was just two short weeks ago for Opening Night at FNB Field. The temperature that Friday never dipped below 40 degrees on the scoreboard, but the 20 miles per hour winds cut through everything you were wearing and chilled you to the bone. Players relied on portable heaters in the dugout, hand warmers, lots of layers, and pretty much anything to stay as warm as possible. Outfielder Andrew Stevenson remarked that it was the coldest game he could ever remember playing in.
But not everyone in the home dugout agreed with Stevenson.
Manager Matt LeCroy remembers cold weather being the norm in places like Rochester and Edmonton during his playing career. “Rochester was cold the longest. I don’t like wearing sleeves and I wore sleeves that year for what felt like the whole year. It was cold all of the time,” LeCroy said. He points to Opening Day 2007 in Rochester as the coldest game he ever played in. “We played a day game at 1 o’clock and I think it started around 37 degrees. It was below freezing by the end of the game,” he said. “They almost called the game.”
It wouldn’t have been a new experience for LeCroy as he remembers that happening too. “We got cancelled because it was too cold in Edmonton. It was sunny with clear skies,” he said. “Two days in a row, we got ‘colded’ out.”
Pitcher Greg Ross grew up in Maryland and went to Frostburg State located in the Allegheny Mountains on the eastern slope of Big Savage Mountain so he’s used to playing in the cold. “I think my senior year of college we had five home games,” Ross said. “It was a full season of that weather.”
“It’s funny seeing the southern guys come up and say this is cold,” he said. “Nah, this is a good day up here.”
Even the grounds crew and front office staff remember a colder game just three short years ago. A Wednesday morning matinee at then Metro Bank Park was delayed for 46 minutes while the field thawed out and the first pitch temperature rose to 34 degrees. The grounds crew chipped away ice from the edges of the playing surface for what was and is the coldest start-time temperature team officials can remember.
Pitching coach Chris Michalak grew up in Joliet, Illinois, attended Notre Dame, and played in numerous “cold weather” cities during his minor league journey including Edmonton. So when he has stories about cold games, you just turn on the tape recorder and let him go.
“I remember we played at Purdue in March and it’s no fun,” he recalled his college days. “The worst is in the bullpen because you would be freezing and then they expect you get loose. There would be times when I could not feel my finger because I would have it outside my glove. It hurt so badly every time the ball would come back to me. The worst thing is to sit down there, with no cover, and it’s drizzling. We didn’t have heaters at that time. You’re just down there shivering.”
“There were many times when I sat down there re-evaluating what I was doing.”
As for the coldest game he played in though? That’s an easy answer for Michalak. “I pitched one time in Colorado Springs,” he said. “There was frozen sleet and the wind chill was in the 20s. It was miserable. My toes were cold. I couldn’t feel anything. I have real bad circulation too so there were times I couldn’t feel the ball.”
“I remember the guys were giving me a hard time because I wore a mask on the mound,” Michalak said. “I didn’t care. It was freezing.”