Yesterday was a beautiful day for baseball in central Pennsylvania.
My first Harrisburg Senators baseball game was Sunday. It was actually the second game on my 13-game plan, but I had deadlines at the office last week and was unable to attend on Opening Day. (Have no fear, that ticket is not going to waste; I exchanged it for a ticket on August 15th when the Nationals' Racing Presidents will be in Harrisburg.)
The Harrisburg Senators were hosting the Altoona Curve, the AA affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Senators lost on Thursday, won Friday night's game in extra innings thanks to a walk-off home run by Matt Skole, and buried Altoona in the late innings on Saturday for their second victory of the year. This was the fourth and final game of the opening series of the 2015 season.
Sens over .500 after beating Altoona 4-1. It's the first time they're over .500 since the end of the 2013 season. #HbgSens— Terry Byrom (@hbgsensradio) April 12, 2015
I was so anxious for baseball this weekend that I almost went to Saturday night's Senators game. "Patience, young Padawan," I told myself, and instead I stayed home and listened to the Nationals/Phillies game on the radio, becaming frustrated with the game in the late innings when it all fell to pieces for the Nationals.
I was antsy around the apartment, and when the appointed time came I put on a red t-shirt, a blue patriotic Bryce Harper Nationals jersey, and a beaten and faded blue Senators baseball cap. Harrisburg awaited. The gates at Metro Bank Park opened at Noon, and I wanted to be there to be sure of getting the giveaway — a Jordan Zimmermann pint glass.
I needn't have worried. There wasn't much of a crowd at the gates at 11:50 when I arrived on City Island. Still, seeing the Washington Nationals logo on the steps gave me the same thrill I had on Monday when I first saw it, and the Senators had put up more flags of recent Senators greats around the entrance since Monday.
Attendees did not receive the pint glasses when we entered. Instead, those of us old enough to drink were given a coupon for redemption when we exited the ballpark. This struck me as a sensible thing to do; broken pint glasses in the stands could be dangerous, as could a projectile pint glass if someone got rowdy. Imagine pint glasses raining down on the field if the crowd hated a call by an umpire. Yes, sensible thinking, that.
Sundays are a a "Play catch on the field" day at Metro Bank Park, and many families took advantage of that.
Then it was a matter of settling in to wait.
The crowd at Metro Bank Park was not large. The announced crowd was 3,900, but it didn't really feel that big. Or maybe I'm just bad at estimating crowds. Either way, it didn't feel like there was a lot of energy in the crowd. I've mentioned before that there's a kind of indifference to the Harrisburg faithful when the Senators' line-up is announced. There's polite clapping, and that's about it.
Yes, I felt happy. I felt this way when I went to Shamrock Fest a few weeks ago; I was stuck in traffic on 95, maybe ten miles north of the Beltway, and this strange feel overcame me. What was this feeling? It was happiness. I was happy. Stuck in traffic, I was happy. And that feeling overwhelmed me Sunday afternoon. Baseball was about to happen, and that was the best thing in the world.
After the ceremonial pitches and the Star-Spangled Banner (sung by the choir from Wellsville Elementary), the game was underway.
Pitching for the Senators Tim Alderson, making his first start of the season and his debut in the Nationals organization. Alderson faced five batters in the first inning, giving up a lead-off single and a two-out walk. One thing I noticed in the first that I found frustrating — and I'm sure the players on the field likewise found it so — was the umpire's late strike call. It was almost like he had to think about it, and just when I was sure that the pitch had been a ball, the umpire would make a late call.
On the mound for the Curve was Chad Kuhl. He struck out Stephen Perez (SS), gave up a single to Tony Renda (2B), got a fly-out to right from Matt Skole (1B), advanced Renda to second with a wild pitch to Kevin Keyes (RF), and got out of the inning with a fly-out from Keyes to left.
Alderson faced four batters in the second, with the pitcher Kuhl being the batter who gave him the most trouble. Alderson started out the at-bat with two balls, then then got two called strikes, ran the count full, and then Kuhl started fouling off pitches while making solid contact before flying out to left on a hard hit ball.
In the bottom of the second, Kuhl set the Senators down in order — Randolph Oduber (CF) popped one up on the infield to the shortstop near second, then Adrian Sanchez (3B) and Pedro Severino (C) both went down with 5-3 put outs.
The top of the third started with Altoona's Keon Broxton singling to center, followed by a walk to Max Moroff. Josh Bell, the Pirates' #4 prospect, was the next batter, and after a first pitch ball from Alderson, the Senators' pitching coach, Chris Michalak, went out for a mound visit. Alderson's next pitch was a called strike, but Severino dropped the pitch and Broxton and Moroff both ran. Severino recovered quickly, though, and he was able to throw to Sanchez at third for a tag play to erase the lead runner. Bell then popped out to short, and the next batter, Eric Wood, hit the ball deep into right for a single. Moroff rounded third, Keyes' throw to the plate was both offline and came in short, Moroff scored, and Wood advanced to second on the throw. Alderson escaped the inning with a flyout to left by Jonathan Schwind.
The bottom of the third started off with a hard hit line drive into center by Rick Hague. Alderson, the pitcher, laid down a beautiful sacrifce bunt down the first base line and was tagged out, advancing Hague to second. Stephen Perez drew a four pitch walk, but Tony Renda was unable to advance the runners when he had a flyout to shallow left. Matt Skole worked the count full, then drew a walk to load the bases. Kevin Keyes, with his first pitch...
That would be the story of the day for the Senators. They could get men into scoring position, often with less than two outs, but they would squander opportunities and be unable to bring them home.
In the top of the fourth, Alderson faced four batters, giving up a one-out single to Junior Sosa.
Randolph Oduber led off the bottom of the fourth for the Senators, and on the first pitch from Kuhl he hit the ball third. Curve third baseman Eric Wood scooped the ball and threw to first, but his throw pulled Josh Bell off the bag and Oduber was safe. Oduber then swiped second (the throw by Jacob Stallings was very high), and he advanced to third when Adrian Sanchez grounded into a 4-3. Pedro Severino then hit the ball weakly to short, and shortstop Gift Ngoepe, rather than throw to first threw home as Oduber had broken for home. Oduber looked for a moment like he was caught in a rundown, but somehow he ended up avoiding the tag and getting back to third. At this point, the Senators now had men on second and third with one out (as Severino took second while Oduber was in the rundown). Hague struck out, and Alderson grounded out to short.
Senators had men on 2nd and 3rd with 1 out and could not convert. Down 1-0 after four. #hbgsens— Allyn Gibson (@allyngibson) April 12, 2015
In the top of the fifth, Alderson faced three batters; flyouts to left (for Broxton) and right (for Moroff), followed by a groundout to first.
Kuhl started off the bottom of the sixth with a strikeout to Perez. Tony Renda then got on base with a line drive to right, and he stole second with Skole at the plate. Skole, however, struck out, and Kevin Keyes hit a sharply hit line drive double that stayed fair into the right field corner, scoring Renda and tying the game. Oduber then struck out, ending the Senators' threat in the fifth.
In the top of the sixth, Bryan Harper, the older brother of Nationals' outfield Bryce Harper, took over on the mound.
Harper's sixth started with a strikeout to Wood. Then he gave up a triple to the gap in left center to the left fielder Jonathan Schwind. After a ball to the catcher, Jacob Stallings, it was time for a mound conference. Harper and Stallings then battled to a full count with many balls fouled off. Stallings then, on the eleventh pitch of the at-bat, blasted a rocket into the left center gap to score Schwind, putting Altoona back in the lead, 2-1. After a strikeout by Sosa, Ricky Hague then threw out Stallings at the plate when Gift Ngoepe hit the ball into left.
Altoona also went to the bullpen in the sixth, bringing in reliever Tom Harlan. After a flyout to Sanchez and a popout by Severino, Hague slapped a single into center, followed by a flyout to center by pinch hitter Delta Cleary.
On for the Senators in the top of the seventh was Richard Bleier. He worked efficiently in the seventh, facing three batters and throwing six pitches.
Harlan also had an efficient seventh, facing just Perez, Renda, and Skole.
The top of the eighth started with a line drive to center by Josh Bell, and he was advanced to second with a sacrifice bunt by Eric Wood. Schwind then hit the ball to third, and Bell was caught in a rundown by Sanchez and Perez, and Schwind grounded out to second.
Kevin Keyes drew a walk to start the eighth. Randolph Oduber then hit the ball Moroff at second but he was unable to play the ball cleanly, and the Senators had men on first and second with no outs. Sanchez laid down a sacrifice bunt to advance the runners, but then Severino struck out, and Hague grounded out to the shortstop. Yet another situation with runners in scoring position with one out, and the Senators were unable to score a run.
Still pitching for the Senators at the top of the ninth, Bleier gave up a lead-off single to new Curve right fielder Edward Salcedo. Ngoepe then flew out to right, and left fielder Willy Garcia (a defensive substitution in the seventh) hit the ball to short for a 6-4-3 double play that also saw a good pick by Matt Skole out of the dirt when Tony Renda bounced the throw to first.
Down 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth, it all came down to this for the Senators.
Pinch hitter Shawn Pleffner started off the inning with a double. Perez then executed a nicely down sacrifice bunt to advance Pleffner to third. Renda then grounded the ball to short. Senators manager and third base coach Brian Daubach sent Pleffner home, and he was thrown out at the plate by Ngoepe. Matt Skole then flew out to right to end the game.
I did not stay to watch kids run the bases or the ball toss onto the field.
Instead, I made my way to the exit, picked up my pint glass, and walked across the Susquehanna as I like to do. First, it's a nice walk. And second, it allows some time for those in a hurry to get off the island. The river was higher than it was on Monday. I saw that the sidewalk that runs along the river bank along Front Street was completely submerged.
Overall thoughts on the game?
Both teams were offensively challenged throughout the game. Altoona showed bunt a lot, and both teams went often to the sacrifice bunt to advance runners. The Senators certainly hurt themselves with baserunning blunders (Oduber's near rundown in the fourth, Pleffner getting cut down at the plate in the ninth), but it was their inability to capitalize on runners in scoring position that really hurt them. If baseball has a certain amount of luck built into it, then the Senators were a little more unlucky than the Curve, and it was that unluckiness that helped to doom them.
I was interested to see the Senators employ a shift on Josh Bell in the top of the fifth. Pardon my typo in this Tweet; damned autocorrect...
If Altoona's Josh Bell could have blunted down the third base line, he could have beaten the shift for a hit pic.twitter.com/5BPJWWNsyp— Allyn Gibson (@allyngibson) April 12, 2015
Bell ended up hitting the ball pretty much straight to Matt Skole at first, but it seemed to me that if he could have laid a bunt down the third base line he could have gotten on base quite easily. (Altoona had been showing bunt throughout the game — their lead-off hitter in the first showed bunt — so it's part of the team repertoire.) Anyway, what intrigued me about the shift was that it happened at all, that the Senators knew, at this level, to employ the shift on this particular batter.
In the end, the difference was those two hard hit balls off of Bryan Harper in the sixth. Harper didn't look bad; he just seemed unlucky with his pitches and hitting his spots in those two at-bats.
I also thought it was interesting to note who the scouts were following. Metro Bank Park has a prominent area for the baseball scouts, and I had a good view of them from my seat. One scout seemed particularly interested in Senators relief pitcher Richard Bleier; he had his radar gun mounted, he was checking it, and he was making notes. (If I remember correctly, Bleier was hitting mid-90s according to the ribbon board.)
The 2-1 loss dropped the Senators back to 2-2, and Monday night the Bowie Baysox come to Harrisburg for a three game set before the Senators head out on the road, first to Binghampton and then to Altoona.
The next game for me, though, is the Reading Fightin' Phils on April 26th.
For more photos, see my Facebook album