Rhett Wiseman gets ‘connected’ and everything falls into place

As Rhett Wiseman launched the Vicente Campos offering towards the Skyliner roller coaster on Monday night, it gave the Senators a 4-2 advantage and him the outright lead in all of minor league baseball with eight home runs on the young season.

To say the 24-year-old outfielder has been hot is an understatement.

Earlier in the day, the Eastern League announced that he was named the Player of the Week after hitting .424 (14-for-33) while driving in 13 runs and compiling a 1.061 slugging percentage through the season’s first ten games.

It would have been tough two years ago to picture this kind of performance from Wiseman when he struggled in his first taste of High-A ball. He matched his home run total of 13 from the previous season and still eclipsed 20 doubles, but the outfielder scuffled to a .229/.283/.391 slash line in 123 games with the Potomac Nationals.

The next spring the Nationals minor league hitting coordinator Troy Gingrich began working with Wiseman on changing his swing.

“Troy and I did a lot of work incorporating my lower half into my swing more than it had ever been used since my college days,” Wiseman said. “When I first got to pro ball, I had a tough time adjusting with how my body worked with balls that moved different ways, in and out with late action.”

The Massachusetts native came to the Nationals with a strength-based swing that relied on his upper body to generate his swing and the power behind it.

“He’s such a strong and full max effort guy with his swing,” Gingrich said. “Usually those guys that are max effort do it all with their upper body. So when he would swing his whole body would go forward throughout the swing process.”

Here’s video of Wiseman taking batting practice during his junior season at Vanderbilt:

Wiseman took to the change and slugged 21 homers during his second go-round at Potomac in 2018. But there was still a lot of work to be done on the consistency of his at-bats and covering the entire strike zone.

“It took him a decent amount of time for him to feel it,” Gingrich said. “Last year he was able to get where he could pull a lot of balls but still be in his legs. But pitches on the outer half he would come out of it.

“This year in spring training he finally got to where it clicked. He could let the ball travel, and he was behind everything, When that happened, everything synced up. I like to use the word ‘connected.’ His lower half and his upper half are working the same.”

The physical adjustment has initiated a series of positive developments down the line. Wiseman is now able to trust his hands and use his legs to generate power. That, in turn, allows him to wait longer which helps him with pitch recognition. And all of that adds up to a better approach and mindset on each pitch of an at-bat.

“When you’ve done something your whole life, it takes time,” Gingrich said. “It just took him a little longer to figure out how to stay connected using his legs and still feel like he’s behind it to generate the same amount of power with an easier swing.

“He picked up on using his lower half quickly, but there was still always a rush to go get everything. That has taken him the year to let him feel like he can stay there and let the ball come to him, and be short, and stay connected.”

A prime example is this at-bat against Hartford reliever Jordan Foley where Wiseman was able to sit and wait on the outside pitch instead of jumping out on his front foot and rolling over it.

Before this season, Harrisburg hitting coach Brian Rupp had only seen Wiseman in spring trainings but knew the left-handed power hitter was searching for answers.

“He’s a strong kid that wanted to add lift to his swing,” Senators hitting coach Brian Rupp said. “When he would do that, he would come out of his legs and spin off everything. So a big focus of his was to really preset that weight on the backside and drive that back knee towards the ground.”

For illustration, here’s Wiseman at contact on that above double off the center field wall.

“I thought his purpose every day when he hit in spring training to try and stay up the middle is starting to carry over,” Senators manager Matt LeCroy said. “He’s in a better position. Balls that he should hit, he’s actually attacking them. You can tell with his success, he’s right on it.”

There is still a lot of baseball left this season. Wiseman is going to have the usual ups and downs. Opposing pitchers are going to change the way they pitch to him, and he’s going to have to make adjustments to that. But so far, the changes he’s made at the plate have paid huge dividends with early results.

“By him feeling like he’s staying in position and lets the ball travel to him, he now makes a better selection of what pitches he swings at,” Gingrich said. “That is still is a work in progress with him. But from where he was to where he is now is so much better with his strike zone knowledge, and the pitches he swings at early in the count because he’s a very aggressive hitter.”

“He’s much shorter and much quicker to the ball now than he was,” Nationals’ assistant general manager Doug Harris said. “His balance is better. He’s using his legs better. But I think the biggest change for me is his ability to use his hands.

“If you saw his swing the first year or two, it’s a totally different swing now. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a kid change his swing as dramatically as he has. It’s impressive.”

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Senators “get that first one out of the way” in 8-4 Opening Day victory

Photo courtesy Sam Getty / Harrisburg Senators

Matt LeCroy couldn’t have drawn up a much better first game of the 2019 season for the Harrisburg Senators.

Other than a pesky two-run home run Bowie’s Anderson Feliz hit off reliever Ronald Pena in the eighth inning, the manager was pleased with all facets of his young ball club in its 8-4 Opening Day victory over the Baysox.

“It’s good to win any time, but this hopefully sets the tone,” LeCroy said. “These kids worked extremely hard in spring training and did a lot of things well. It carried over into tonight.”

Wil Crowe got the starting nod and fought through some early struggles before settling down nicely to go five innings and pick up his first Double-A win after failing to do so in five starts last season. The 24-year-old right-hander allowed one run while scattering three hits, walking a pair, and striking out three on 81 pitches. 

“Last year I think he put himself in some bad counts,” LeCroy said. “He started out tonight behind, and then he got a big double play ball. I felt like each inning he went out, he got better. Better rhythm, more strikes, a better flow to the ballgame.”

The offense got a big jolt in the bottom of the second when Rhett Wiseman clubbed a three-run home run in his first plate appearance at this level. The outfielder picked up where he left off last season after stroking 21 homers at Potomac in 2018. 

“It’s nice to get the nerves out of the way right in the first at-bat,” Wiseman said. “Going up I’m just trying to breathe, take it all in, slow the game down, and just find a barrel.”

Four innings later Chuck Taylor gave the Senators some much-needed insurance runs when he crushed a 1-2 pitch onto the left-field boardwalk clearing the bases with a grand slam.

“It was a good start,” LeCroy said. “We still have 139 more to go, but it’s always good to get that first one out of the way.”

***

Luis Garcia, Tres Barrera, and Wiseman all broke through with base hits in their first game at Double-A.

“Anytime it’s your first time at this level you want to get the monkey off your back and get a hit first and have good at-bats,” LeCroy said. “Hopefully they all keep solid approaches. It ain’t going to be easy, but I like where they are at right now.”

***

Michael Taylor went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts while playing seven defensive innings in center field during his rehab…Aaron Barrett got the game’s final three outs in his return to the mound five-plus years after his last time at FNB Field…Drew Ward connected on a pair of doubles on the first two pitches he saw and scored three runs on the night…Chuck Taylor is slated to be the team’s leadoff batter.

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Fresno’s loss is Harrisburg’s gain with Fedde and Kieboom

When the Triple-A affiliation shuffle ended last fall, the Washington Nationals were left holding a bag that only had the Fresno Grizzlies remaining in it. It felt like a fat kid getting to the bottom of his Halloween candy to find only Good ‘N Plenty left.

So instead of Nashville or even Las Vegas, the Nationals’ top affiliate for at least the next two years is 2,800 miles away. Flights between the two cities have at least one stop and take over seven hours to finish the journey.

That’s not to say that the Fresno isn’t a first-class city chockfull of fans or that the facilities at Chukchansi Park after $3.4M in upgrades aren’t somewhat comfortable. But for a Major League team firmly planted on the East Coast having your top tier of replacement players situated on the opposite side of the country is not convenient or feasible.

To combat that distance and the peculiar situation, the Nationals decided to place pitcher Erick Fedde and catcher Spencer Kieboom on the Class AA Harrisburg Senators’ opening day roster to keep them close by in case of emergency.

“They’re high character guys, and they know why they are here,” manager Matt LeCroy said during the team’s media day. “The good thing is they’re going to work and treat it just like they were in the big leagues or Triple-A.”

Fedde had been vying for a spot on the Washington pitching staff this spring, and despite posting an 8.03 ERA and allowing 22 hits in 12.1 innings, the Nationals obviously have confidence in the 26-year-old right-hander.

“I said my goal is to be in the big leagues and if you think this is my best way to be there, then I’m all for it,” Fedde said. “I don’t care if you put me in Potomac.”

And although the writing was on the wall when Washington traded for Yan Gomes and signed Kurt Suzuki, Kieboom has to be considered the next man up after playing 52 games for the Nationals last season.

“I try not to think about that stuff,” Kieboom said. “You get too far ahead of yourself. I’ve played that game in my head before, and it didn’t turn out well.

“All I can do is control my attitude, who I am, put the work and preparation in, play, and then just let it all happen. It’s taken me a long time to realize that, but that’s the truth.”

LeCroy doesn’t see either player taking the competition in the Eastern League for granted thinking it’s going to be easy. As he pointed out since his first season in 2012, the Nationals have promoted around 20 players either directly from Harrisburg or with barely enough time in then Triple-A Syracuse for a cup of coffee.

“They understand they are a phone call away from going back.”

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Breaking down the 2019 Harrisburg Senators Opening Day roster

Catchers

Tres Barrera
2018: .263/.334/.386, 14 2B, 6 HR in 68 games

Spencer Kieboom
2018: .239/.328/.325, 9 2B, 3 HR in 77 games

The Nationals sent Kieboom to Harrisburg so he’s close by (compared to Fresno) in case anything happens to either one of their backstops. But they’ll also want to give Barrera opportunities behind the plate, so expect them to split the catcher duties along with some DH’ing for both.

Infielders

Ian Sagdal
2018: .318/.373/.451, 28 2B, 6 HR in 101 games
The Washington State product showed his struggles at High-A Potomac in 2017 were behind him with a fantastic season at the same level in 2018. This year at Double-A will provide a good challenge for the 26-year-old infielder.

Luis Sardinas
2018: .253/.290/.373, 15 2B, 5 HR in 71 games
The 5-year MLB veteran will look get his career back on the right path in Harrisburg. It’s probably not a coincidence that Sardinas will share the middle of the infield with Garcia so he can mentor the youngster.

Luis Garcia
2018: .298/.336/.406, 21 2B, 6 3B, 7 HR, 82 R in 127 games
The Nationals’ #3 prospect (according to Baseball America) gets an aggressive promotion up the chain after only 49 games at High-A Potomac. At just 18 years old until the middle of May, many are predicting a meteoric rise for the teenage phenom just like Juan Soto.

Drew Ward
2018: .249/.363/.422, 18 2B, 13 HR in 115 games
If you throw out Ward’s first 14 games last year where he began ice cold at the plate, the corner infielder batted .274 and slugged .463 the rest of the way. Even though this will be his fourth season with the Senators, Ward is still only 24 years old and younger than the average age of the league.

Bryan Mejia
2018: .265/.308/.384, 28 2B, 6 HR in 101 games
Mejia will likely be the jack of all trades subbing in at second base, shortstop, and third base for the Senators. After logging three straight 100+ game seasons at Potomac, 2019 will be the first opportunity for the 25-year-old at Double-A.

Austin Davidson
2018: .292/.374/.482, 21 2B, 5 3B, 11 HR in 112 games
Davidson showed last year that Double-A pitching wasn’t a problem for him at the plate as he killed right-handed pitchers to the tune of a .518 slugging percentage in 257 at-bats. Finding at-bats for him without a solid defensive position may be a challenge however.

Outfielders

Tyler Goeddel
2018: .219/.298/.329, 8 2B, 4 HR in 83 games
Goeddel will look to regain the form that saw him play 92 games with the Phillies in 2016 as a Rule 5 pickup from Tampa. Since then, the former first round draft pick has struggled at minor league stops in the Cincinnati and Los Angeles Dodgers organizations.

Rhett Wiseman
2018: .253/.361/.484, 23 2B, 21 HR, 65 R, 63 RBI in 116 games
The Vanderbilt product posted a career-high with 21 home runs last season in Potomac topping the 13 he hit in both Hagerstown and Potomac the previous two years. Wiseman feasts on right-handed pitching and it will be interesting to see if his power surge continues with the promotion to Double-A.

Chuck Taylor
2018: .297/.377/.376, 25 2B, 3 HR, 70 R, 60 RBI in 126 games
Taylor was plucked away from the Mariners organization in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft by the Nationals and he slots in nicely as a corner outfielder. Expect the 25-year-old Texan to get on base and set the table for the Senators, but be aware his overall speed has not translated into stolen bases in the recent past.

Zach Collier
2018: .212/.318/.358, 17 2B, 5 3B, 6 HR in 102 games
The only true centerfielder on the roster, Collier returns to Harrisburg as an integral defensive asset that can play any of the three spots. The Long Beach native will look to bounce back from his worst offensive season in his professional career.

Starting Pitchers

RHP Erick Fedde
2018: 5-8, 4.81 ERA, 1.471 WHIP, 8.9 K/9
Fedde returns to Harrisburg and just like Kieboom it’s so he’s closer to DC than a couple of flights from the west coast. The Vegas native is considered the first man up should (I guess I should say when) the Nationals need starting rotation depth.

RHP Wil Crowe
2018: 11-5, 3.40 ERA, 1.307 WHIP, 7.3 K/9
Crowe was less than stellar after his call-up in August last year as his first full professional season physically wore him down. The right-hander had a tendency to nibble around the plate and it put him into hitter-friendly counts which cost him against upper level hitters.

RHP Sterling Sharp
2018: 11-6, 3.70 ERA, 1.355 WHIP, 6.4 K/9
Perhaps the best athlete on the team (or any team he’s on), don’t let Sharp’s lithe frame deceive you. The Michigan native can bring the heat and he’s always tinkering with his grips and pitches to maximize his effectiveness.

LHP Ben Braymer
2018: 9-3, 2.28 ERA, 1.090 WHIP, 9.3 K/9
The 24-year-old southpaw returns to the starting rotation after a season serving as a piggyback reliever at Hagerstown and swingman at Potomac. Braymer clearly excelled at the task as he was named the Nationals’ co-minor league pitcher of the year.

RHP Tyler Mapes
2018: 7-3, 2.63 ERA, 1.158 WHIP, 7.1 K/9
“The Plumber” returns to Harrisburg after getting shut down in early August last season. Mapes will look to come back 100% healthy and regain his 2016 form as he vies to put himself back on the prospect map.

Relief Pitchers

RHP Dakota Bacus
2018: 2-1 2Sv, 3.89 ERA, 1.324 WHIP, 11.7 K/9 in 26 games
We’ve seen Bacus before. Each of the last four years to be precise. We’ve seen his mid-90s fastball and wipeout breaking ball can be dominant at times, but the results haven’t consistently matched the stuff.

RHP Joan Baez
2018: 9-9, 3.79 ERA, 1.403 WHIP, 7.4 K in 25 games
Not to be confused with the folksinger extraordinaire (and Bob Dylan’s one time squeeze), Baez has been a starter his entire career before his stint this past off-season in the Dominican Winter League. Here’s hoping the switch to the bullpen pays off with finding the strike zone more consistently.

RHP Aaron Barrett
2018: 2-0, 3.00 ERA, 1.333 WHIP, 18.0 K/9 in 4 games
The feel-good story of the spring returns to City Island where he prospered six years ago. Eastern League hitters won’t cut him a break just because of his comeback story, so Barrett needs to prove he’s healthy and effective out of the bullpen.

RHP James Bourque
2018: 4-2 6Sv, 2.04 ERA, 1.057 WHIP, 12.9 K/9 in 41 games
Bourque was a breakout star last year after converting from a starter to the reliever. If he starts the season the way he finished 2018, Bourque may get his MLB call sooner rather than later.

RHP Jacob Condra-Bogan
2018: 2-3 7Sv, 2.79 ERA, 0.833 WHIP, 11.4 K/9 in 28 games
The fireballer came over from the Kansas City organization in the Kelvin Herrera trade and continued mowing down batters at a different level in a different league. When the weather warms up, I wouldn’t be surprised to triple-digits on the in-stadium radar gun.

LHP Taylor Guilbeau
2018: 1-0, 2.52 ERA, 1.374 WHIP, 8.8 K/9 in 28 games
Guilbeau made the successful transition to reliever last year returning to Potomac for a second straight season. After a rough May, the southpaw was excellent in his final 21 appearances earning his first shot at Double-A.

RHP Ronald Pena
2018: 2-3 6Sv, 3.27 ERA, 1.223 WHIP, 11.4 K/9 in 38 games
There’s a reason Pena didn’t make it to Double-A Harrisburg until last year, seven seasons into his professional career. His high-90s fastball is impressive, but Pena struggles to throw strikes. If he can harness his power, he can be dominant.

RHP Mario Sanchez
2018: 0-1, 8.00 ERA, 1.333 WHIP, 8.0 K/9 in 7 games
The one-time Nationals’ farmhand returned to the organization after a couple of seasons with the Phillies. Injuries limited Sanchez’s 2018 to just nine innings in the Gulf Coast League in August, so health will be a question mark entering the season.

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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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