Eastern League adopts split-season format

Previously, the Eastern League was the only league lower than Triple-A classification that played the schedule as a full season endeavor. Starting in 2019 that changes as the league goes to a split-season format.

The Eastern League of Professional Baseball has announced the league will be changing their playoff format from a full season format to a split season format. Under the new format the first place team from each division during both the first and second halves of the season will qualify for the postseason. This change will go into effect immediately, starting with the 2019 season.
The first half of the season will end on the 76th day of the regular season and the second half of the season will begin on the 77th day of the regular season. For the 2019 season, the final day of the first half of the season will be on Tuesday, June 18th, with the second half of the season kicking off on Wednesday, June 19th. The second half of the season will conclude on Monday, September 2nd, the final day of the regular season.
Postseason berths will be awarded to the first place teams in both the Eastern Division and the Western Division during the first half and second half of the season. In the event the same team finishes in first place in their division in both halves of the season, the second playoff spot for that division would be awarded to the team from that division that had the best full season record. The standings for postseason berths will be determined using the won-loss record (games behind column), with winning percentage having no impact on the standings.
The first round of the postseason will feature the first half winner from each division facing the second half winner from their respective division. The team that finishes in first place in the first half will host games three through five of the best-of-five opening round series. The second half winner will host games one and two of the opening round series. Winners from each opening round series will advance to the Eastern League Championship Series, which will feature a 2-3 format, with the series beginning in the Western Division in even numbered years and the Eastern Division in odd numbered years.

With the constant upheaval and changes in minor league rosters, the players that end the season are rarely the ones that started it. At the very least, this rule change gives every team an opportunity to reset the board and start back at even on June 19.

Take for example last year when the Portland Sea Dogs were not very good to begin the season. They posted a horrid 26-43 record in the first half before reworking their roster and finishing four games above .500 for the second half. If this new format was implemented before last season, the Sea Dogs would still have fallen short of the Eastern Division second half championship by one game but fans in Portland would have had a team to root for all the way through the final game. Instead, Portland slogged to a cumulative 63-76 last-place record that realistically had them out of the playoff race in July.

Now if you’re worried this is going to change a lot. Don’t be. Recent history has shown the best teams over the course of the full season are the same ones that will qualify for the playoffs in the new format….for the most part.

Doing the best I can to estimate where the first half would have ended with the new rules retroactively put into past seasons, nothing at all would have changed the last three years. The 12 teams that made the playoffs the last three seasons are the same 12 teams that would have made it under the new format. Expanding to the five seasons prior to that (2011 through 2015), however, shows that five teams who failed to make the playoffs would now be in the postseason.

In four of those cases, the teams went from a bad first half to a great second half. The best example of this is the 2011 Binghamton Mets. The B-Mets began the year 23-45 before turning it around and going 42-31 in the second half. Back in 2011, Binghamton finished in fifth place 8.5 games out of the playoffs behind Reading garnering the last postseason slot.

Only once in the timeframe reviewed has it happened where a team blitzed the competition in the first half and played so poorly in the second half, it failed to make the playoffs. That was the 2015 edition of the New Britain Rock Cats who went 40-31 in the first half before sputtering to a 29-40 finish. Under the new format, that would have been good enough to push out the B-Mets who went 77-64 that season.

But that wouldn’t have been the best team of the last nine years to miss the playoffs under the new format. In 2014, Richmond finished with an overall 79-63 record. Good enough for a first-place finish six games better than all other teams in the Western Division. But if today’s rules were in place, the Flying Squirrels would have gone home after the regular season ended as Akron and Erie qualified.

Much like the recent addition of the extra wild card team in the MLB postseason was meant to keep more teams in the playoff race later in the season, the same can be said about moving to a split-season format. A bad April and May won’t subject a team to a death march through summer to the end of the season.

It’s not perfect and there may be teams that get screwed in the end, but the intent is to keep interest through the dog days of August for fans and players alike. And that can’t be a bad thing.

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Five takeaways from the Senators’ 2019 promotional schedule

The Harrisburg Senators gave fans a first look at what’s to come for the 2019 season as they released their promotional schedule on Wednesday afternoon. Here are my top five takeaways from it.

August 3 – Jamey Carroll will become the latest former Senator to be inducted into the One and Only Life Size Bobblehead Hall of Fame. Carroll batted .283 in 264 games over parts of four seasons for Harrisburg and still ranks fifth all-time in modern team history with 283 hits. The first 1,000 fans will get to take home their own smaller version of his likeness as it takes its place on the boardwalk next to Guerrero, Floyd, Harper, Stairs, Phillips, and Strasburg.

April 19 – Take a trip down memory lane as the Senators will celebrate the 1996, 1997, 1998, and 1999 teams that brought home the Eastern League championship four straight seasons. As part of the festivities, a Championship 4-Peat blanket will be handed out to the first 1,000 fans 13 and older.

Bobbleheads – Besides the Jamey Carroll bobblehead, the Senators will be giving away three additional figurines throughout the year: 

  • May 4 – Juan Soto (Star Wars theme) to the first 1,500 fans
  • June 22 – Matt LeCroy (Game of Thrones theme) to the first 1,500 fans
  • July 20 – Rascal (outer space theme) to the first 1,000 fans

Specialty Jerseys – Fans also love when the team wears specialty jerseys and auction off the game-worn uniforms. This year there will be four chances for you to go home with a specialty jersey:

  • May 25 – Space Jam
  • June 15 – Halfway to Christmas
  • August 4 – Selfie Day
  • August 24 – Pink Night

August 13-15 – On the 50th anniversary of the famous music festival, the Senators will celebrate Woodstock with their own three days of peace and music (and baseball). Let’s hope the weather is a lot better on City Island than it was on Max Yasgur’s farm in upstate New York half a century ago. This one will be a little bittersweet though, because the one person who would have loved to play some Hendrix, Santana, CCR, and Joplin tunes while enjoying a little weed won’t be around to enjoy it. RIP Andree

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Ninth-inning rally secures series win over Altoona Curve and tightens the playoff picture

After splitting the first two contests of this pivotal three-game series against the Altoona Curve, the Harrisburg Senators stood three outs away from losing the rubber match and an important win in the standings.

Down 3-2 the Senators’ playoff hopes would be far from over with a loss, however it would be a severe body blow to their chances as they chased the Curve in the standings for the final postseason spot. But this Harrisburg team has been resilient all season and Thursday night at FNB Field was no different.

Austin Davidson led off the ninth inning with a walk surrendered by Curve reliever Tate Scioneaux. Next up catcher Taylor Gushue laced a single into right field, and with Altoona’s outfielders playing deep Davidson was able to go first-to-third with a display of aggressive baserunning.

“It kind of surprised me just because he did hesitate a little bit,” manager Matt LeCroy said. “When he got over to third, he wanted to know how close it was. He knew they were playing for no doubles and he took a chance. He’s not the fastest runner, but he plays the game the right way.”

Zach Collier followed with a walk he worked to load the bases and move the go-ahead run up to second base. Dan Gamache was announced as a pinch-hitter and that’s when the slow drizzle turned into a raging, beating downpour and the umpires quickly called for the tarp. But just like that the storm’s power lessened and after a brief 10-minute rain delay action resumed.

Gamache squibbed a ball towards shortstop Cole Tucker whose only play was the fielder’s choice out at first scoring Davidson from third and tying the game up. Pinch-hitter Alec Keller was intentionally walked to re-load the bases and set the stage for Daniel Johnson.

Johnson played the part of hero as he ripped 1-0 offering over the center fielder’s head to score Gushue from third and set off the celebration.

“It just had to be there honestly,” Johnson said. “Bases loaded I wasn’t trying to do too much. If it was there, I was swinging.”

The win marks the fourth time this season the Senators have won after trailing entering the ninth inning.

“I’ve been really proud of the guys,” LeCroy said. “They’ve put themselves in a spot to play for something. In the minor leagues, that is all you can ask for…to play some meaningful baseball in August.”

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Pivotal three-game set against Altoona will dictate Harrisburg’s playoff hopes

With 33 games left for the Harrisburg Senators, none loom as large for their postseason hopes as the next three hosting the Altoona Curve at FNB Field starting Tuesday night.

Only four playoff spots exist for the five Eastern League teams currently sporting winning records. The Eastern Division is all but mathematically decided with New Hampshire and Trenton, while Akron has a firm grip on first-place in the Western Division.

So, the final playoff spot is up for grabs between two teams playing on City Island over the next three nights.

Only two games in the win column separate the two teams with Harrisburg entering this pivotal series with a 54-51 record while the Curve stands 56-47. The Senators also travel to Altoona for a two-game jaunt on August 22 and 23, but Harrisburg desperately needs to make up ground in the standings during this head-to-head matchup as the calendar flips to the final full month of the season.

“I’d like to be in it in August,” manager Matt LeCroy said earlier this season. “That’s what you hope for in the minor leagues where every game that you play in August means something like it was in 2016.”

In the last couple of weeks alone, you can point to the moments that have brought them to this point.

Zach Collier’s home run-stealing catch, scoring 7 runs in two innings to steal a victory on a getaway day in Portland, and Hunter Jones’ mad dash from first base for the walk-off win in Sunday’s nightcap have set the Senators up for the opportunity in front of them.

***

Sterling Sharp gets the ball for Harrisburg Tuesday night. The lither right-hander has been very promising in five of his first six AA starts flashing an impressive sinker. The Senators need Sharp to remain, um, sharp as he is matched up with Altoona’s Cam Vieaux in the series opener.

***

The Curve lost their scheduled Thursday starter, Taylor Hearn, to a trade with the Texas Rangers late Monday night. To say that leaves a big hole in their rotation would be an understatement. Hearn led the Eastern League in strikeouts and held opponents to a league-best .198 batting average.

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Ryan Zimmerman looks ready to contribute to the Nationals’ playoff push

Earlier in the day at the All-Star Game media scrum, Washington Nationals manager  Davey Martinez disclosed the plan is to activate both first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and pitcher Stephen Strasburg before the second half slate of games begins after the break. Zimmerman, who made a rehab start and played seven innings for the Harrisburg Senators on Tuesday night at FNB Field, confirmed that plan and revealed the key to getting ready by Friday.

“Make it through tomorrow,” Zimmerman said. “With everything I’ve done yesterday and today: I’ve been on the bases quite a bit, playing first for a while yesterday and then seven again today. I’ll probably DH tomorrow to get as many at-bats as I can while giving me tomorrow and Thursday to get off my feet. By Friday, I should be to go.”

The first baseman’s timing at the plate looked good as he crushed the first pitch he saw from Akron starter Matt Whitehead for a 408-foot solo home run out to left field. He followed that up with a line drive to the shortstop, a four-pitch walk, and a fielder’s choice.

“I think when you’re gone for two months I think the biggest thing is just getting back into it,” he said. “I almost feel like you play better when you’re coming back and you know you’re not going to have a lot of at-bats because you are just trying to simplify everything. Literally, just get the barrel to the ball somehow.”

On his last two at-bats, Zimmerman was able to test out the hamstring and oblique injuries on the basepaths. The 33-year-old looked pain-free running down the line and tagging up on a fly ball.

“Everything feels good,” he said. “The legs are a little heavy, but that’s good for me. I got some at-bats and faced some pretty good pitching. Two wins, that’s important too.

“It just feels good to be back out there.”

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Hunter Jones plays hero with walk-off grand slam

It’s only happened four times previously for the Senators. Not four times this season. Four times period.

Four times in 32 seasons. Four times in roughly 4,500 games.

The last time was over 17 years ago as Ron Calloway performed the feat on May 22, 2001 against the Portland Sea Dogs. The most famous was Milton Bradley’s giving Harrisburg the 1999 Eastern League championship.

But now we can add Hunter Jones to the list of walk-off grand slams in the history of the franchise.

Jones drive off Nick Pasquale into the left field seats capped a remarkable comeback giving the Senators a 6-3 victory over the Akron RubberDucks in the opening salvo of the three-game series.

“The boys have been fighting,” manager Matt LeCroy said. “It’s been a weird stretch of games for about two and a half weeks starting in Altoona. We’re finally starting to get a couple more big hits. I couldn’t have been prouder of everybody the way they fought.”

Deadlocked at one each, the Senators rallied in the eighth inning loading the bases. But Jones was thrown out at home after tagging up on Taylor Gushue’s line drive to center. The inning-ending double play kept the Senators from the lead and swung momentum in Akron’s favor.

The RubberDucks seized on the moment in the top of the ninth as second baseman Mark Mathias squared up a Derek Self offering that had just enough lift to make its way into the Senators’ bullpen for a 3-1 lead.

“In the eighth, we put some heat on them and got ourselves in a good situation,” LeCroy said. “Gushue hit the ball good, just not good enough to get Jones in. [Ka’ai] Tom made a good throw. And then Self elevated some balls. The momentum obviously shifted.”

Jake Noll led off the bottom half of the ninth inning with a single, followed by a walk to Austin Davidson. That was all for Akron reliever Jordan Milbrath as manager Tony Mansolino called for Pasquale to finish the game for the first-place RubberDucks.

The sidewinder induced a comebacker from Alec Keller that looked like a tailor-made double play, but Pasquale’s throw to the bag was in the dirt and shortstop Willi Castro couldn’t come up with it cleanly to load the bases. Osvaldo Abreu followed with a slow chopper down the line that third baseman Sam Haggerty’s only play was coming home for the force out. Instead the throw sailed past the catcher and the Senators drew to within one keeping the bases juiced for the hero of the night, Jones.

“I didn’t want to be swinging at something I didn’t want,” Jones said. “I just wanted to give myself a good opportunity to get a pitch I could do something with and not just swinging at something I see and react to. I know his ball sinks hard and he has a really good slider. I was just laying off the slider and waiting for that sinker to come in and I golfed it.”

“It was just a great team win,” Jones added.

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Lowery at the Bat

I wasn’t going to recap Friday night’s game, but then the Senators completed the thrilling 7-6 comeback win over the Yard Goats with five runs in the eighth inning and I felt I needed to do something.

So with all due apologies to Ernest Thayer, I was going to steal just the first couplet but then I felt like finishing it in that same style.

Lowery at the Bat

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Harrisburg nine that day:
The score stood six to two, with but one inning more to play,
Young Kieboom came up empty and all chances had looked lost,
But Hartford needed three more outs, quite the substantial cost.

And then Read let drive a single, and Jake Noll did the same
As Pierpont the Great rustled waiting to come in the game.
Keller moved the line as he tore the cover off the ball
A late rally was brewing to the wonderment of all.

Then Schaeffer, the master of the Goats, could wait no more
He summoned for his prized arm to silence the crowd roar.
But Zeke left fans breathless again in a collective howl
Jumping on the first offering that we watched curve just foul.

Confident and composed, he laced another pitch to right
Fireworks be damned, they would not fall without a fight.
Only two scores were between them, and Ozzie made it one
Doubling over Mylz’s head to plate another run.

A strikeout did little to dishearten the patrons pull
Since Hunter was granted four balls to force the bases full.
But LeCroy’s troops were split thin and had only one batter left
The Mighty Lowery was called on to carry the team’s heft.

One ball, two, and then even a third off the plate
Lowery looked patiently for something he could hit straight.
The leather-covered sphere came hurtling intact through the air,
“That ain’t my style,” said Lowery without another care.

Eight thousand eyes were on him as he clenched the wood bat tight
Digging a hole in the box where he placed his back foot right.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Lowery’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
That place is City Island where fans’ wishes do come true,
There is joy in Harrisburg – Mighty Lowery has come through.

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