Raudy Read makes season debut in Senators’ 3-0 win over Richmond

After slugging a career-high 17 home runs at Harrisburg last year and earning a September call-up to Washington, Raudy Read appeared on the cusp of earning significant playing time and contributing to the Nationals’ pennant hopes this season.

Instead, the 24-year-old was suspended in the off-season for 80 games after testing positive for Boldenone, a performance-enhancing substance, and was forced to sit out the first two months of the season before making his 2018 debut on Friday night at FNB Field for the Senators.

“I was a little nervous the first couple of pitches but after that I was fine,” Read said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a real game and feeling the pressure. But it feels good.”

Read caught six frames and went 1-for-3 in his first game action of the season including a stand-up triple to lead off the sixth inning.

The Dominican Republic native worked out in his home country after news of the suspension, but after about a month came to the Nationals’ spring training facilities in West Palm Beach to continue preparation for the season.

“One of the things I was working on in West Palm was my timing,” Read said. “I was just looking for balls up in the zone tonight.”

Although slated to begin the season at Triple-A Syracuse, Read’s suspension hurt the catching-thin Nationals when Matt Weiters injured his hamstring and went on the disabled list on May 11. Since then, Washington has had to rely on Pedro Severino and Spencer Kieboom to carry the load and both have struggled offensively in the role.

The solution may be Read, but even if he shows little to no rust in his return, the backstop still has two weeks (or 14 games) before he’s eligible to be reinstated with the Nationals.

”I was going to go five, but (manager Matt) LeCroy wanted to get me one more at-bat,” Read said. “I told him I was ready to catch the whole game.”

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The third time’s the charm for Austen Williams

2018 marked the third season in a row that pitcher Austen Williams was on the Harrisburg Senators’ opening day roster. Without mincing words, the previous two stints did not go well for the 6-foot-3 right-hander.

As part of the starting rotation each season, Williams combined for 20 starts where he went 2-13 with a 6.24 ERA while opponents batted .326 off him. Both times, those disastrous results earned him mid-season demotions back to High-A Potomac for the rest of the year.

So when Williams’ name was once again on the Senators’ opening day roster this season, it wasn’t hard to imagine a similar path.

It didn’t matter that the Nationals had shifted the 25-year-old out of the role as a starting pitcher and into the bullpen. He threw as a reliever in the Arizona Fall League and that didn’t exactly work out as he was routinely lit up to the tune of a 10.67 ERA in nine appearances.

But through the first two months of the season, Williams has looked like an entirely different pitcher for the Senators.

Gone is the starter who would nibble on the edges of the plate and try to make the perfect pitch the moment runners got into scoring position. Instead, it’s been replaced by an aggressive approach where he believes in his pitches and challenges every batter.

“The move to the bullpen allows me to focus more on two pitches,” Williams said. “I think as a starter I needed to have a better third pitch and it wasn’t what it needed to be. It wasn’t one thing over night. It was some little things that compounded the last two years. I think I just found a role in the bullpen that fits me better.”

Off the field Williams is one of the more soft-spoken members of the clubhouse, but with every dominating performance he delivers you can see his on-field demeanor changing to a guy that wants the ball and is beginning to thrive as the center of attention on the mound. Friday night against the Portland Sea Dogs was just the latest example of this as he was nearly untouchable striking out five over two hitless innings to pick up the extra-inning win and lower his season ERA to 1.50 and WHIP to 1.042.

“I think he’s got confidence,” manager Matt LeCroy said. “This year he’s found a niche in the bullpen by keeping the balls down and getting ahead of hitters. In the past he didn’t have that same swagger.”

Harrisburg pitching coach Michael Tejera got his first look at Williams in the AFL when he was on the staff for the Mesa Solar Sox last fall. Despite the double-digit ERA and struggles, Tejera saw the change coming for the Texas State product.

“You could see the progress he was making,” Tejera said. “This year he has taken it to another level. Everybody’s impressed with the progress he has made. And now having success, his level of confidence is very high and we are seeing what he is capable of doing.”

“It’s tough when things are going bad to really trust your stuff,” Williams said. “I think it was just a process having to go through that where I had to learn how to manage it. And although I haven’t had too many tough situations yet this year, I think just having 100 percent confidence in what you’re throwing.

“I feel like I can throw whatever I want and let it play in the strike zone and still get outs.”

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Adam Eaton eyes imminent return to the Nationals in first rehab game

There’s an old adage in baseball that goes “the ball always finds you”. Usually it’s reserved for players who aren’t particularly good defenders or who are having a rough go of it in the field.

Friday night at FNB Field, the phrase could have been said for Washington Nationals’ outfielder Adam Eaton playing in his first rehab game for the Senators. It didn’t take long to test out the outfielder’s knee and arthroscopically repaired ankle in the 29-year-old’s first game action since April 8.

Portland leadoff hitter Jeremy Rivera began the game with a lazy fly ball to center field that Eaton settled under for the out. The next batter, Chad De La Guerra, bounced a single up the middle that Eaton fielded cleanly to hold the Sea Dog second baseman to a single.

“It was a productive first day,” Eaton said. “Right off the bat you get two balls to me: one a fly ball, one a hit.”

To start the Senators’ home half of the first, Eaton once again had to test how far he’s come in his recovery. On a 1-2 pitch, he topped the offering in what amounted to a swinging bunt between the pitcher and first base that had him “let it loose down the line”. In his next plate appearance, Eaton walked and ran the bases on a fielder’s choice.

“To get on base and then slide, everything felt great,” Eaton said. “I feel almost normal. I can still tell I had knee surgery, but the ankle isn’t a problem.”

He played five innings in the field and went 0-for-2 with a walk. Eaton isn’t too concerned with the results as the left-handed hitter is using this time to fine-tune his timing at the plate.

“It’s almost like a spring training game,” he said. “I haven’t played in five to six weeks. It’s almost like an off-season. I’m excited for this week of at-bats and to see as many pitches as possible.”

Manager Matt LeCroy said the plan is for Eaton to play six innings on Saturday in left field and seven on Sunday in center field pending the weather the next two days.

“It’s been a humbling experience to get something taken away from you that you’ve really enjoyed for most of your life,” Eaton said. “I’ve learned that family is the most important thing in my life and that this is just a game at the end of the day.

“I’ve learned patience and to not take any day for granted anymore. To put everything I have into this game and let the cards fall where they may.”

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Daniel Murphy and Brian Goodwin both come out of first rehab game feeling good

Daniel Murphy and Brian Goodwin completed the next step in their rehab process with seven successful innings in the field and four plate appearances each. Both said the respective injuries felt good after their first minor league game action.

After the game, manager Matt LeCroy said both will once again play seven innings on Sunday and then get the game off on Monday.

Murphy, coming back from off-season knee surgery, went 1-for-4 with a single that fell in front of Altoona right-fielder Bralin Jackson. The second baseman also looked good moving laterally on ground balls as he recorded three assists on three groundballs including the start of 4-6-3 double play.

Perhaps more importantly as a sign of his recovery was his ability and willingness to go first-to-third on a single to the centerfielder.

“I checked a couple of boxes,” Murphy said. “I was able to go first to third. It was nice to get out there.”

“It was good to see Murphy go first-to-third with a slide,” manager Matt LeCroy said. “I think that’s a good piece of mind for him.“

Goodwin matched his rehabbing partner with a 1-for-4 performance at the plate as he singled on a swinging bunt. The outfielder didn’t have any chances in the field as he manned left field in front of the Ollie’s Cheap Seats.

“It’s been feeling better every day,” Goodwin said. “I’ve got to give credit to the training staff for taking care of me and bringing me back to the position where I can put some ABs together, some innings together.”

“Goody looked good,” LeCroy said. “He stole a base, tagged up and moved to third. He did a lot of good things.”

Goodwin was also happy to be back on City Island where he played during the 2012, 2013, and 2015 seasons for the Senators.

“This is probably one of the best places we have in our organization,” he said. “It’s good to be back and see some familiar faces.”

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The Curious Case of Yadiel Hernandez

While a couple of teenagers, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Juan Soto, were putting on an impressive hitting display Thursday night at FNB Field, 30-year-old Yadiel Hernandez went 2-for-4 including his team-leading seventh home run of the season.

For those unfamiliar with his back story, Hernandez defected to the United States in June 2015 when he left the Cuban national team as they competed in North Carolina. Although eligible to sign with any team the next April, the outfielder didn’t agree to a deal until the following September when he inked a minor league deal with the Nationals organization including a reported $200,000 signing bonus.

So it was after a year and a half’s worth of rust, Hernandez played the entire 2017 season for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators. The left-handed batter started the year slowly but as the weather turned nicer, he made up for lost time on the diamond with one of the better second halves in the Eastern League. In 49 games after the All-Star break, Hernandez slashed .354/.429/.549 with seven homers and 11 doubles besting his first-half production of five home runs and 10 doubles over 22 less games.

But despite the strong second half, Hernandez never would have fooled you into thinking he was a prototypical corner outfielder with power to spare. His 12 long balls in 2017 were the most of his career as he failed to hit more than 10 in a season while playing in his native Cuba.

While looking at his early season success, I came across his spray chart which is unlike any I think I’ve ever seen before.

That’s right. All seven of his home runs this season are the opposite way. Even when he wasn’t hitting them out at this clip last year, his gap power was always into the left-centerfield slot.

In looking for comparisons, it isn’t easy. Hitting coach Brian Rupp brings up Derek Jeter as the best known guy being able to stay inside the ball like this. Senators’ broadcaster Terry Byrom mentions Wade Boggs pounding doubles off the Green Monster. But Hernandez is still also just a 30-year-old guy who hasn’t seen a pitch above Double-A in the United States.

As the Nationals’ roster continues to be beset by injuries and they struggle to find consistent production from the outfielders, one can’t help to wonder what the plan is for Hernandez. He doesn’t have much left to prove at this level, so is his approach and strengths at the plate something he can rely on at Triple-A and beyond?

“It’s sustainable to a certain level,” Rupp said. “When you start getting guys who can really get the ball inside to try and speed him up, he’ll have a tougher time. But it’s also really hard for guys to get the ball inside consistently.

“But the one thing he does well is that if they make a soft mistake, he’ll hit it hard up the middle. He’s taking the fastball away and anything slow over the plate he can handle. It’s just that little tunnel (underneath his hands), if they can get it there he’s going to have a tough time.”

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Brady Dragmire twirls one-hit gem on way to 7-1 win

The last time Brady Dragmire appeared in front of the home crowd at FNB Field, the right-hander pitched through snow squalls on his way to a no-decision against Reading. Saturday night, Dragmire was the one that froze Altoona’s bats as he carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning on his way to his second win of the season on a career-high eight innings pitched.

“There’s going to be days where you leave it up a little in the zone and they tee off,” Dragmire said. “There’s going to be days where everything just happens to be going your way and today happened to one of those days.”

The 25-year-old pitcher retired the first 15 batters he faced on only 47 pitches before Stephen Alamais led off the sixth inning with a hit. The Altoona second baseman hit a shot to Kelvin Gutierrez’ right that the third baseman gloved but the throw bounced past first baseman Drew Ward. A fly ball advanced Alamais to third and an RBI groundout followed to end the shutout.

But other than that one unearned blemish, Dragmire was in control the entire evening.

That was also the only baserunner Dragmire allowed as he struck out three and didn’t walk anybody on his way to a 76-pitch gem. Roman Mendez pitched a perfect ninth inning for Harrisburg keeping Tyler Mapes’ complete game at Erie on July 18, 2016 the last 9-inning one thrown by a Senator.

“Every game plan, every start I’m just going out there trying to let the two-seam do its work,” Dragmire said. “I want to put groundballs in play as often and as quick as possible. It just happened to fit that mold perfectly today.”

Dragmire’s last outing against the Yard Goats in Hartford was also his worst of the young season. He allowed six runs on nine hits in only 4.2 innings before being chased from the game with back-to-back home runs.

“What I’m most impressed with is he was able to throw out his last start,” manager Matt LeCroy said. “He got away from his strength in his last start and he went back to it tonight which I got excited about because you saw a lot of groundball outs. If you’re going to be a sinkerballer, you’re either going to win quickly or lose quickly.

“That’s a big confidence booster after he had a rough one.”

Gutierrez may not have been able to throw out Alamais on the lone hit, but the third baseman made a number of dazzling plays in the field to keep Curve batters off the basepaths.

“Gutierrez at third base put on some show,” Dragmire said. “The whole infield for that matter. It’s not just me, but there are eight other guys out there.”

“He’s starting to hone in and focusing and doing a lot of things he’s capable of doing,” LeCroy said of his rising player at the hot corner. “Sometimes he takes plays for granted. I think he’s starting to realize if he can bring it every night with that focus and attention to detail, he’s going to be one of the best defenders in this league.”

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Senators’ home opener was Jefry Rodriguez’s time to shine

Jefry Rodriguez made his Class AA debut in Bowie last Friday as he allowed five runs in 5.1 innings. The 24-year-old couldn’t get out of the sixth inning that night as he gave up three runs in the frame including a two-run home run to Orioles’ top prospect Austin Hayes.

One week later, it was a completely different story as the right-hander scattered only four singles over 6.2 shutout innings against the same Baysox lineup to earn his first victory of the season as the Senators bested Bowie 5-1 on Friday night at FNB Field.

“I thought he was in total control of the ballgame from the first pitch,” manager Matt LeCroy said. “I was really proud when he went a got a couple of shutdown innings after we scored.”

The 6-foot-6 right-hander was in command as just one Baysox baserunner reached third base off him only to be stranded there by reliever Austen Williams.

“It’s a good sign from a kid who comes up from A-ball and puts together two back-to-back outings against the same club,” LeCroy said. “And they have some guys over there that can swing it; veteran guys that know how to play.”

Rodriguez, the Nationals 24th ranked prospect according to Baseball America, appeared the part as he touched 95 on the in-stadium gun and did a great job mixing in his breaking ball and change-up to keep the Bowie bats at bay.

“Him and Mike (Tejera) have a really good relationship,” LeCroy said. “I think Gushue has done a really nice job with him too mixing it up and getting him through some innings.

“Tonight was almost perfect. The weather was great. We played really well.”

***

The Senators drew 6,758 in their largest home opener in history…Khayyan Norfork drove in three runs on the night on two singles and fielder’s choice…Taylor Gushue drove his first home run of the season onto the boardwalk over Ollie’s Cheap Seats…Dan Gamache continued his assault on Eastern League pitching going 2-for-4 to raise his league-leading batting average to .462 on the season.

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