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.

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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.

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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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Senators and Logan Darnell honor his late mother with special Alzheimer’s night on July 26

On April 13, Harrisburg pitcher Logan Darnell lost his mother, Caye, after a six-year battle with early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 59 back home in Nashville, Tennessee. Since the original diagnosis, Logan had become a crusader in raising awareness for the disease utilizing his minor league connections along the way.

“When you first find out, it’s shocking, and you don’t understand the negatives behind the disease,” Darnell said. “Once it started getting worse in 2015 and 2016 when I was in Rochester, I felt like I had a platform there. So I did a bunch of different things like a jersey night there that did well. I did a golf outing there that raised money. I did a bartending night.”

With that in mind, Darnell has teamed up with the Senators to make Thursday, July 26, a memorable night as the team will wear specialty jerseys and caps that will be auctioned off during and after the game with the proceeds benefiting the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater PA. As he did in Rochester, Darnell is also paying for the production of the jerseys himself instead of relying on corporate sponsorship.

“If you put a lot into it, whether it is money, time, or effort, it usually grows,” he said. “Paying for jerseys is a small price. There are a lot of people that come to the games that also have family members that have been touched by the disease. The jerseys are an easy thing.”

This season Darnell has already spearheaded the Senators holding a fundraising event at Arooga’s and auctioning off Bryce Harper autographed game-worn cleats for $1,325. He also has a GoFundMe page looking to raise money to start a foundation in his mother’s name.

“Let’s make something good out of something so bad,” he said. “I went through this bad thing, and I can help so many other people because I’ve been through it. That’s why it’s focusing towards a foundation in her name and helping people because I already know what they’re about to go through.”

There are currently 5.7 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s, and by 2050 the number is projected to rise significantly to 14 million. The disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States ahead of diabetes and kidney disease.

“She was always smiling and laughing,” Darnell said of his mother. “You can ask the guys on the team. I’m usually the first one to goof off, make jokes, and be light. I definitely got it from her.

“She was always doing good for others, and that’s the name of the game.”

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Kieboom, Noll, Keller, and Mapes promoted to Harrisburg

Typically, the days surrounding each league’s All-Star break are also when organizations decide to make their first significant wave of promotions throughout the system. The Washington Nationals stayed true to form with the promotion of four players from Potomac on Thursday.

On the heels of third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez getting traded to the Kansas City Royals, the left side of the Harrisburg infield is getting a makeover as shortstop Carter Kieboom and third baseman Jake Noll will be penciled into the Senators’ lineup moving forward.

Kieboom, the Nationals #4-ranked prospect per Baseball America and younger brother of Spencer, has slashed .298/.386/.494 in 61 games with Potomac. The 20-year-old has shown patience at the plate to the tune of 36 walks against 50 strikeouts in his first taste of the High-A ball. Kieboom is also in the top five of the Carolina League with 11 home runs, 48 runs scored, and 46 runs driven in.

Noll, a seventh-round selection in the 2016 draft, has matched Kieboom in nearly every offensive category. The 24-year-old infielder has slashed .302/.353/.460 with twelve doubles, eight homers, 47 runs scored, and 46 driven in for Potomac.

Both infielders also played in the Carolina League All-Star Game held on Tuesday night at Five County Stadium in Zebulon, North Carolina.

Also getting promoted to Harrisburg is Alec Keller, who spent all of 2017 with the Senators before going down with a hip injury in mid-July . The Princeton product has bounced back with a .340 batting average and eight extra-base hits in only 29 games with the P-Nats.

After missing the entire 2017 season due to injury, Tyler Mapes has also shown he’s healthy as the right-hander is 6-1 with a 1.76 ERA and 1.01 WHIP in 12 starts for Potomac earning a promotion back to Double-A. In 66.1 innings, Mapes has walked only 15 batters and struck out 52 including nine in his last start, a 9-inning complete game shutout.

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