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Feeling Shifty: The Chiefs’ New Defensive Approach

The most eye-catching difference with the Chiefs this year hasn’t been the new uniforms or the new roster. It’s the new defensive alignments. Syracuse has overshifted in the first four games more dramatically than the Chiefs did at just about any point last season.

The shifts are part of a new organizational philosophy put forth by the Nationals. In spring training, Nationals field coordinator Jeff Garber worked extensively on shifts with the position players. Chiefs hitting coach Brian Daubach is in charge of the team’s defensive alignments this year. Before home games, the team has a sheet posted in the clubhouse hallway that notes the tendencies of each opposing team’s hitter.

In Tuesday’s doubleheader vs. Buffalo, the Chiefs placed three infielders on one side against a handful of Buffalo batters. Here’s a look at those alignments, starting with the shift to left-handed Domonic Brown…

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.36.14 AM

On the left of your screen, shortstop Trea Turner fields a ground ball hit by Brown in the first inning of Game One yesterday. Without the overshift, that grounder likely makes its way into center field for an RBI single. Second baseman Brendan Ryan is the player to the right, coming in from the edge of the outfield grass.

Next up, a shift against left-handed Casey Kotchman, which was even more dramatic…

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.37.37 AM

This picture shows the Chiefs’ infield after a slow ground ball to first base. Back it up before the pitch, and you’d find second baseman Brendan Ryan even deeper onto the outfield – maybe 10 or so steps. Meanwhile, Turner’s shift from shortstop is slightly deeper than against Brown. Again, this freeze-frame is from after the ball’s been hit, so Turner’s ranging to his right to hover near second base.

While shifts against left-handed batters seem more frequent, the Chiefs also pulled three infielders to one side against right-handed batters, with mixed success. Here’s an alignment against Jesus Montero…

Screen Shot 2016-04-13 at 9.39.45 AM

On this occasion, the Chiefs’ alignment worked to perfection. Second baseman Brendan Ryan, playing well to the third-base side, fields a ground ball from Montero and throws to first from near his usual shortstop position for an easy out. In yesterday’s game two, however, Montero hit a weak bouncer to the vacant hole on the right side for a single in a key sixth-inning rally.

That’s a play that opponents of the shift will point to in their opposition to over-defending. However, in the small sample size of yesterday’s 14-inning doubleheader, the Chiefs made more plays thanks to shifts than they lost, particularly against the third and fourth-place hitters, Brown and Montero.

One caveat to all this: if you’re going to move your middle infielders around, you’d better have infielders with good range. With Brendan Ryan and Scott Sizemore at second base and Trea Turner at shortstop, the Chiefs aced that test yesterday.

2015: A Chiefs Odyssey – Kevin’s #1

1. Father and Son

Andy Hayt / Getty Images

Andy Hayt | Getty Images

I’ve said it all along – despite the Chiefs’ less-than-stellar overall record, last season didn’t lack for memorable moments. Cutting down this list to 10 wasn’t easy. Stopping the list at 15 or 20 wouldn’t have been easy, either. 2015’s most memorable moment, however, was never in doubt.

Kids who are into sports – as I was, and, reader, as I’m guessing you were – frequently gain that love of sports from their fathers. My dad taught me my childhood love of the Yankees, the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers. Posters and program covers of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera adorned my childhood bedroom. Brett Favre ornaments hung on the Christmas tree every December. (They still hang.)

There was nothing better than attending a baseball game or celebrating a championship with my dad. I learned my love of the game from him. He bought me a pitching net that I bounced fastballs off of in my backyard. He hung a tennis ball on a string from a tree branch in our front yard and turned one of my Little League baseball seasons around. He taught me how to shoot a basketball, how to throw a football and how to swing a golf club. (The last of those isn’t aesthetically pleasing. Sorry, Dad. That one’s on me.)

My story’s not unique, though. Many of us have been fortunate to have that fatherly connection in our lives. Many of us want to be our dad when we grow up. I was never in that boat – my father’s an engineer during his day job. (I never gravitated toward his way of manual labor and his scientific mind, unless you mean the science of Rafael Martin’s slider.)

But some of us have that chance. Some of us get to follow in our dad’s footsteps, as enormous as they may seem. Some of us – like Tony Gwynn, Jr.

Rick Nelson | Syracuse Chiefs

Rick Nelson | Syracuse Chiefs

To be honest – I felt bad for Tony last year. I didn’t just feel bad because of the pain he had to endure after losing his father to cancer in June 2014, at the age of 54. I felt bad because Tony had to face a reminder of that death every week. It’s the first thing on any reporter’s mind. Every seven days or so, I trudged down to the clubhouse to ask Tony if he’d talk to this person or that person. He hid it well, but it wore on him a bit by the end of the season. How could it not? Who wants to be reminded that their father – the man they loved, the man they idolized, the man whose line of work they followed despite an untouchable, Hall of Fame legacy – is no longer there?

I expressed my feelings to Junior near the end of the season. “Look,” I told him, “if you want me to stop bringing this interview requests to you…”

“It’s all good, man”, Tony said. “I get it.”

He meant that. He understood that despite the pain it brought, that was part of his life. It’s right there in the name – Tony Gwynn. In my five years of covering the Chiefs, I can hardly think of anyone more well-equipped to deal with that level of attention than Tony Gwynn, Jr. He’s a terrific young man with a wonderful spirit. He greeted every reporter and television camera with the same infectious smile and upbeat personality. That’s just how he operates.

Tony Gwynn, Jr. was all smiles from Day One with the Chiefs. (Ellen Blalock | Syracuse Post-Standard)

Anyway – Tony could have helped himself out with media requests if he wasn’t so darned dramatic last year. He’d already delivered a handful of walkoff and clutch late-game hits by last Sunday, June 21st – Father’s Day. One year and five days after Tony, Sr. passed away. The first Father’s Day he didn’t get to spend with his father around.

In a tie game in the tenth inning, Kevin Keyes singled. Ricky Hague sacrificed him to second. And Anthony Keith Gwynn, Jr. delivered the most beautiful moment of 2015.

Thanks, Tony – for the memories on the field and the grace and class in which you handled yourself off it. At the end of the day, that’s what 2015 was all about.

——

(One final note before I sign off on this countdown and turn the last word over to Eric: Tony was gracious enough to join me the day after his game-winner to talk about his father and his own fatherhood. I enjoyed this conversation and hope you will as well.)

2015: A Chiefs Odyssey – Kevin’s #2

2. 11 Up

Kevin Keyes kickstarted a major rally in the last game of the Chiefs' win streak. (Herm Card)

Kevin Keyes kickstarted a major rally in the last game of the Chiefs’ win streak. (Herm Card)

The thought of this Chiefs team coming one victory short of a franchise win streak seemed unfathomable up until the moment it happened. This is a Chiefs team that was 43-67 heading into the streak. A Chiefs team that lost 19 of 20 games and 25 of 28 in a stretch from May to June. A Chiefs team that hadn’t won more than four consecutive games heading into the streak – but had lost four or more in a row on six separate occasions beforehand.

Frankly, the odds of this group winning 11 consecutive games were about as high as…oh, let’s say for hypothetical’s sake, the odds of a 10 seed with 13 losses making the Final Four.

You’ve already read about the beginning of the streak: August 3rd, in a Stephen Strasburg-pitched game vs. Pawtucket. The PawSox would become frequent punching bags from that point forward. Some highlights…

The only team with a longer win streak in Chiefs history? The 1979 Chiefs, who lost in the seventh game of the Governor’s Cup finals.

2015: A Chiefs Odyssey – Kevin’s #3

Eric, I think the fans wanted more overlap…

3. Cardiac Chiefs

Tony Gwynn, Jr. came up with big hit after big hit for the Chiefs last season. (Syracuse Chiefs)

Tony Gwynn, Jr. came up with big hit after big hit for the Chiefs last season. (Syracuse Chiefs)

There wasn’t a more thrilling finish than the Chiefs’ comeback last Thursday, July 30th. Syracuse, as Eric detailed yesterday, scored four runs in the ninth to erase a 4-0 deficit, with Trea Turner’s two-run single, Tony Gwynn’s RBI single and Matt Skole’s RBI double sending the game to extra innings. A ground-ball RBI single from Steve Lerud in the 10th sealed the deal.

That ending was even wackier, though, when you break it down. So let’s break it down…

  • That comeback would have been significantly easier if the Chiefs hadn’t coughed up a pair in the top of the ninth. Right-hander Paul Demny entered in a 2-0 game and struggled through a 28-pitch inning. With two outs and the bases loaded, eventual I.L. MVP Matt Hague served a two-run single into center field, doubling the Bisons’ lead.
  • The bottom of the ninth started in bizarre fashion. With Chamberlain on in relief, Caleb Ramsey hit a chopper to Hague at first base. What should have been a routine out turned into an infield single when Chamberlain ambled over to the base, causing first-base umpire Doug Vines to call Ramsey safe. However…replays showed Ramsey was, while close, clearly out. Chamberlain’s foot beat him to the bag. The improbable rally, as it turns out, began on a blown call.
    • Side note: Buffalo manager Gary Allenson likely would have blown a gasket after the call; however, he’d already blown his share of gaskets. Allenson was ejected arguing a line-drive double play in the sixth inning, claiming that first baseman Matt Skole’s foot came off the bag before he received a throw. Ironically, video replays showed that Allenson was wrong on this account – Skole stuck to the base for just enough time.
      Okay, back to the ninth…
  • After Ramsey’s controversial infield single, Josh Johnson grounded a ball off Chamberlain that bounced to the third-base side for another infield single. The Bisons’ staff came out to check on Chamberlain afterward. He stayed in the game to face Steve Lerud…
  • …who nearly extended the rally. Lerud hit a blooper down the left-field line, but Dalton Pompey raced in to make a nifty sliding catch, stealing a hit from the Chiefs. It felt like a backbreaker at the time.
  • Spoiler alert: it wasn’t. Darin Mastroianni singled to load the bases. That led to a visit to the mound from Bisons pitching coach Randy St. Clair. Why it didn’t propel Chamberlain’s ouster, we still don’t know…
  • …but Joba stuck around long enough to allow a two-run single to Trea Turner. That marked the end of Chamberlain’s night. Bizarrely, the Bisons let him throw 27 pitches, several of them high-stress, in his third game in four days after being signed from the free-agent wire. Even more bizarrely, on Chamberlain’s way off the field, he walked over to first base and began a conversation with Turner that lasted a full 44 seconds. Steve Grilli, our TV analyst that night, said that was “something I’d never seen in baseball”. (Turner told me after the fact that Chamberlain was asking him how his pitches looked. He’d never seen that, either.)
  • Back to the game…Bobby Korecky, in the midst of a difficult season, took over for Chamberlain and faced Jason Martinson. With the count 2 and 2, Korecky fired a fastball generously above the belt… that plate umpire Jansen Visconti signaled to be strike three. Grilli, on the broadcast, described it as “borderline at best”.
  • That put the game in the hands of Gwynn, Jr. Here’s another forgotten moment of the inning – Gwynn wasn’t in the game until the eighth. He pinch-ran for cleanup hitter Kevin Keyes in the previous inning. Fresh off the bench, Gwynn worked the at-bat of the night. He fouled off three two-strike pitches and, on the ninth offering from Korecky, served the table-setting single into center field.
  • That set the stage for Skole’s tying double, with Gwynn thrown out at home on a perfect relay by right fielder Ty Kelly and second baseman Jon Berti. The Chiefs had roared back to life, however, and a 1-2-3, two-strikeout 10th from Rafael Martin sent the game into the bottom, where Lerud was the hero.
Steve Lerud's third hit of the night on July 30th was the game-winner. (Syracuse.com | Gary Watts)

Steve Lerud’s third hit of the night on July 30th was the game-winner. (Syracuse.com | Gary Watts)

Here’s the TL;DR version; top-of-inning struggle, blown call (which manager didn’t argue because he was ejected for arguing an actually correct call), ground ball off pitcher, injury mound visit, sliding catch, pitcher hung out to dry, 44-second chat between departing pitcher and batter who just recorded a hit off him, bad third-strike call, nine-pitch last-gasp single in player’s first at-bat, perfect relay to the plate. Oh, and five runs for the comeback of the year, somewhere in there.

Not bad for a Thursday night.

2015: A Chiefs Odyssey – Kevin’s #4

4. The Trea Hey Kid

Imagine you’re an accountant. You graduate college in May with an accounting degree from a prestigious university. Next thing you know, you’re on the fast track, hired by a firm in June. You get right to work and immediately start moving up the corporate ladder.

Suddenly, in December, your boss calls you in. There’s a related firm across the country that wants your services. They’ve decided to take you on, but they won’t have space until the following June – so, you’ll stay at your current firm, which no longer requires your services, for an additional half-year. Oh, and, you have no say in this matter.

Got it? Now you might understand Trea Turner’s 2015 a little better – and understand just how impressive it was.

Trea Turner didn't join the Chiefs until late June. (Syracuse Chiefs)

Trea Turner didn’t join the Chiefs until late June. (Syracuse Chiefs)

Turner starred at N.C. State before being selected by San Diego with the 13th pick in the 2014 draft. It didn’t take long for Turner to, well, turn heads with his play – he hit .369 in 46 games with Class-A Fort Wayne after an early promotion. Turner seemed like a large part of the Padres’ future – a young infielder with world-class speed, a strong bat and good instincts.

In the blink of an eye, that changed. On December 19, 2014, Turner was traded to the Nationals in a three-team, 10-player deal – except, he wasn’t. Because of a decades-old rule forbidding players from being traded within one year of their draft selection, Turner was technically a “player to be named later”. He couldn’t report to the Nationals until the second week of June.

Thus begun baseball’s oddest standoff. Everyone knew Turner was headed to Washington, but nobody could do anything about it. His agent talked about filing a grievance, but the rule didn’t change until after the fact. Turner reported to Padres camp and ended up in Double-A San Antonio. Here’s where both Turner and the Padres deserve credit – from Trea’s perspective, he didn’t sulk. He showed up, went to work, and delivered, sporting a .322/.385/.471 line in 58 Double-A games. The Padres, meanwhile, who had nothing at all to gain, slotted Turner into the middle of the San Antonio lineup and made him an integral part of their organization during his brief time there.

Eventually, Turner made his way to Syracuse in late June, coming over after a 10-game stint with Harrisburg. Eric covered his early struggles and first home run a couple of weeks ago, so I’d like to cover the overall impact Turner had on the Chiefs here. This isn’t a memorable “moment”, per se, but a collection of items on why Turner’s impact stands out as one of the defining memories of last season…

  • Turner’s first Chiefs game was June 26th. His last of the year was August 19th. In that time span, the Chiefs went 30-22. Before his arrival, the team was 26-48.
  • Between August 3rd and August 14th, the Chiefs won a season-high 11 games in a row, the most for the franchise in decades. In that span, Turner hit .318 and went 5-for-5 in stolen bases, playing in 10 of the 11 wins.
  • In just 48 games, Turner had three triples and 14 steals. He may have been the fastest runner in the league. In fact, during his major-league cup of coffee, he may have been the fastest man in the bigs.
  • Once Turner snapped his 0-for-18 streak to begin his Syracuse career, he began an immediate 13-game hit streak. In total, he reached base in 39 of 45 starts with the Chiefs.
In under two months, Trea Turner picked up 17 multi-hit games with the Chiefs. (Bill Gentry | Indianapolis Indians)

In under two months, Trea Turner picked up 17 multi-hit games with the Chiefs. (Bill Gentry | Indianapolis Indians)

All told, Turner’s impact wasn’t measurable simply by statistics. The burst of energy, youth and speed he gave the Chiefs seemed to resonate throughout the team. It culminated in a major-league call up in late August. That doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of Turner, who might find himself in a starting Syracuse role rather than straddling the Nationals’ bench – but it’ll be hard to top that first impression.

Time for more overlap, Eric?

2015: A Chiefs Odyssey – Kevin’s #5

5. Stephen-11

Stephen Strasburg sent a jolt into the Chiefs' rotation for one superb start in August last year. (Herm Card)

Stephen Strasburg sent a jolt into the Chiefs’ rotation for one superb start last August. (Herm Card)

Year by year, some of the shine has eroded from Stephen Strasburg. I find this to be simultaneously fair and unfair. It’s fair to the extent that Stephen Strasburg is not the single greatest pitcher on the planet Earth, which seemed to be the universal expectation even before Strasburg was the #1 pick of the Nationals in 2009. It’s unfair because Stephen Strasburg has, in six professional years, pitched to the tune of a 3.09 ERA and 2.83 FIP while striking out 10.4 batters per nine innings and allowing just 7.6 hits per nine.

Objectively, Stephen Strasburg has been better than just about everyone on Earth over the past six, or four, or two years at effectively throwing a baseball. Maybe he’s not The Biggest Deal anymore, but he’s still A Big Deal. So when Strasburg returned to Syracuse for a pair of rehab starts this summer, NBT Bank Stadium wasn’t packed to the gills as in 2010, when a fresh-faced 21-year-old took the International League by storm. There was, however, certainly still a buzz in the yard last summer, when Strasburg made a pair of rehab starts for Syracuse while recovering from a left oblique injury.

The first of those starts, on July 29th vs. Buffalo, wasn’t particularly memorable. The most noteworthy moment could qualify for the oddest of the season, when Strasburg simply stepped off the mound mid-windup and committed a bases-loaded balk in the second inning. In total, Strasburg allowed four hits and three runs in four innings in that game.

His second and final rehab start, however, was – can you use the term “vintage” for a 27-year-old? – vintage Strasburg. On August 3rd, a set-to-be-stretched-out Strasburg took the mound vs. the Pawtucket Red Sox. He wasted little time in establishing his dominance…

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 1.30.37 PM

The Ks continued. Two more in the second. Two in the third. Two in a perfect fourth. One more in the fifth.

In the sixth, when Strasburg punched out former Chief Sandy Leon for the third consecutive time, that was that. The final tally: five and two-thirds innings, five hits, two earned runs, zero walks and 11 strikeouts. No Chiefs pitcher struck out as many in a game all season.

After Strasburg's two rehab starts, he returned to Washington and posted a 1.90 ERA in his final 10 starts, striking out 92 in 66.1 innings. (Herm Card)

After Strasburg’s two rehab starts, he returned to Washington and posted a 1.90 ERA in his final 10 starts, striking out 92 in 66.1 innings. (Herm Card)

Strasburg may not be Sandy Koufax. He may not be Walter Johnson. He may not be Greg Maddux. But being Stephen Strasburg is pretty darned good. And getting an in-person reminder of that, for an early August night, was thrilling.

Oh, and, one more note…that game, coincidentally or not, kickstarted the Chiefs’ longest winning streak in decades – which I’m certain we’ll be hearing more about in the days to come…

2015: A Chiefs Odyssey – Kevin’s #6

6. Manny B. Good

Manny Burriss dazzled at the plate and in the field in his two years with the Chiefs. (Rick Nelson)

Manny Burriss dazzled at the plate and in the field in his two years with the Chiefs. (Rick Nelson)

Emmanuel Burriss was the bedrock of the Chiefs the last two seasons. He didn’t play much in the majors. He didn’t win the league MVP, like Steven Souza, Jr. in 2014. He didn’t even make an All-Star team. I’ll argue, however, that there was no more important Chief than Burriss, on and off the field. He anchored the team’s infield at shortstop and second base. He surged to career-best offensive years and power numbers under hitting coach Joe Dillon. Off the field, Burriss was everybody’s friend – just look at the way he jokingly eased Kevin Keyes and Ricky Hague into Triple-A.

My most memorable Manny moment comes from 2014. After the Chiefs clinched their first division title in decades, I trekked down to the Pawtucket clubhouse to watch the celebration. Not two minutes later, I found myself dragged into the middle of the maelstrom by Burriss and Josh Johnson, doused with beer and sprayed in the face with champagne. It was exhilarating in the moment – and unfortunate in the aftermath. I had little in the way of extra clothing and a five-hour drive through the night to Syracuse ahead of me.

Thankfully, Manny turned from playful aggressor to helping hand. He loaned me a pair of his socks for the ride back. Funny thing about that – they’re the highest socks I’ve ever worn. These socks reached literally halfway up my knees. So my clothing combination was a mixture of a T-shirt and shorts from the night before, a gray fleece, sneakers and the world’s highest hosiery. (Needless to say, I let my girlfriend grab snacks inside the gas station on the way back. I stayed anchored to the car, afraid to show my getup to the world.)

No matter what happened in last year’s season finale, Burriss certainly left an impression in his time in Syracuse. But he couldn’t resist going out with a bang.

Burriss played the hero role one last time in his Chiefs finale. (Jeff Irizarry)

Burriss played the hero role one last time in his Chiefs finale. (Jeff Irizarry)

I’m sure Eric will cover this game in more detail, but the Chiefs’ season finale with playoff-bound Scranton/Wilkes-Barre was frankly interminable, as meaningless last-day-games go. 12 walks and four errors led us to the bottom of the 11th inning, where the Chiefs trailed 4-3. A bases-loaded walk by Jason Martinson tied the game, setting the stage for Burriss one final time…

 

Nearly seven months later, Burriss is trying to fight his way back to the big leagues in Phillies training camp. We’re pulling for ya, Manny.

2015: A Chiefs Odyssey – Kevin’s #7

Funny you should mention the lack of overlap…

7. Changing of the Guard

Ricky Hague celebrates after homering in his first Chiefs at-bat. (Courtesy Syracuse Chiefs)

Ricky Hague celebrates after homering in his first Chiefs at-bat. (Courtesy Syracuse Chiefs)

Here’s how bad things were before June 15th – the Chiefs had recently gone from 16-19 to 17-38. That’s a 1-19 stretch in a 20-game period. Their 3-6 record in the nine games after that didn’t move the needle much before the arrival of Keyes and Hague.

Starting with the five-run first and blasting of Toledo, the Chiefs won six of their next eight games. They promptly lost 8 out of the following 10. Turning point? It’s normally impossible to pick one turning point in a 144-game baseball season. There are so many major or minute points that shift a team on its axis from month to month or week to week.

June 15th seemed to be a trend-setter of sorts, though – it may have marked the day the Nationals began a mini-overhaul of the Chiefs’ roster. Infielder Chris Nelson joined six days later. Starter Joe Ross and shortstop Trea Turner, two of the organizations’ most prized possessions, soon followed. Those two, along with Keyes and Hague, certainly firmed up the backbone of the Chiefs’ roster for some time until the team became more whole as the year went along.

A couple of other notes on that game, which Eric covered in detail otherwise…

  • Manny Burriss tried his best to lighten the mood for Keyes and Hague beforehand, per Lindsay Kramer of The Post-Standard

    After both were called up from Double-A Harrisburg to make their Triple-A debuts against Toledo at NBT Bank Stadium, Burriss asked each whether they were nervous about the big moments.

    Repeatedly.

    “Manny was giving us both a hard time,” said Hague, a second baseman. “Like, just to stay in the moment, don’t let it get too big. Just messing with us. Just shrug it off, laugh a little bit.”

     

    Nerves? Hardly.

    …………………………..

    “After the homer (Burriss) didn’t give me a hard time after that.” Hague said.

    “I thought I was going to have a lot (of jitters),” Keyes said. “Burriss kept asking me if I was scared again and again. I was like, no, I don’t think I am. He was just trying to lighten the mood.”

  • You’ve heard the audio…now, here’s the video, of Hague’s first (and, to date, only) Syracuse home run…

One last side note: we didn’t know Ricky liked to be called, well, Ricky, until postgame. That’s why I called him Rick in the video. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s a 1:1 ratio of “games not being identified by the preferred name” to “games with a home run” for Rick(y).

2015: A Chiefs Odyssey – Kevin’s #8

Mr. Turner’s inclusion on this countdown will not be limited, Eric, but that’s for another day…

8. Now Pitching…

We’ll miss Josh Johnson in Syracuse this year. That might sound like a strange thing to say about someone who hit .250 with just two home runs in 277 Triple-A games, but it’s true. Johnson – taking over this season as the first-year manager of the Gulf Coast League Nationals – brought energy and enthusiasm to the park every day in his four years with the Chiefs. He provided humor and an upbeat mentality at all times.

Josh Johnson played four years for the Chiefs, from 2012 to 2015. (Herm Card)

Josh Johnson played four years for the Chiefs, from 2012 to 2015. (Herm Card)

Here’s how Johnson detailed his approach to the game to The Post-Standard‘s Bud Poliquin in 2012…

“Nobody’s ever told me to tone it down, uh uh,” said Josh, who proudly confessed that his happy approach to the game mirrors that of his father. “I’m going to continue to run on and off the field, bust my butt down the line. If I pop out, I’m gonna try to get to second base before the ball hits the ground. It’s just part of my game. If I’m not true to myself, I won’t be able to sleep at night.

“I like to get out there early. I’ve got a little routine. I like to run out there in center field, say a prayer and thank the lord for all the blessings he’s given me. My parents are still here. My sister is still here. I’m still breathing. I’ve got the uniform on. I’ve got all my fingers. Both my eyes work. I can speak. I can go on for days.”

That’s how we’ll remember the playing career of Johnson. Well, that and one memorably weird moment from last year…

—————————–

Last July 10th, the Chiefs and Rochester Red Wings locked horns in a doubleheader. Syracuse won the first game 4-0. Rochester won the second game 11-2. The most memorable half-inning of those, somehow, was the top of the seventh in Game Two.

Because of the length and consistency of a baseball schedule, it’s hard to analyze the sport on a day-to-day basis. Games aren’t all won or lost by what happens in the 24 hours during that day. They’re often changed by what happened in the 24, 48 or 72 hours beforehand. And two days before the Chiefs’ doubleheader, Syracuse used up nearly all its bullpen in a 12-inning win at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. So, 48 hours and 13 innings later, Billy Gardner looked it his lineup card and surmised that his best option, down nine runs, was…

…Josh Johnson.

This was approximately the look on Josh's face when he found out he'd be pitching. (Courtesy PennLive)

This was approximately the look on Josh’s face when he found out he’d be pitching. (Courtesy PennLive)

Johnson had never pitched professionally. His dad used him as a pitcher in high school, he told us after, but that was as close as he’d come to taking the mound in a pro game. So Johnson dialed up the necessary courage in the clubhouse, toed the rubber and started firing.

You know how some position players come in and start lobbing to preserve their arm? Josh Johnson was not one of those position players. He fired a first pitch north of 80 miles per hour for a strike to Argenis Diaz. The next pitch was popped up – in foul ground – to catcher Craig Manuel. One out.

Johnson’s third pitch was hit by Carlos Paulino on the ground to second base, where Chris Nelson threw him out. Two down.

Pitch #4 was his first ball, to highly-touted young infielder Jorge Polanco. Pitch five was a called strike. Pitch six was lined – right to Jason Martinson at shortstop. Inning over.

Six pitches, five strikes, three outs – and, upon the final line drive, one Tiger-Woods-esque, right-handed fist pump. Nobody entertained us more on the mound this year. We’ll miss ya, Josh.

2015: A Chiefs Odyssey – Kevin’s #9

Great pick, Eric. I remember that day just as much – if not more so – for the wind than the walkoff. Not that we’ll experience that sort of thing again with 15 home games in April, of course.

Let’s move on…

9. The Power of Paolo Compels You

Paolo Espino delivered with more than just his right arm last season. (Syracuse Chiefs)

To quote Oscar Wilde, or perhaps Will Rogers, or possibly Mark Twain – or, definitively, Head & Shoulders – “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

The pre-conceived line of thought set forth by this quote is that once a first impression goes poorly, you won’t receive a second chance. What if, however, the first impression goes well, and you still get left out in the cold?

That’s where Paolo Espino found himself last May. In August of 2014, on the heels of a solid season with Harrisburg, the right-handed starter was promoted to Syracuse for a spot start on the final day of August. Espino – the winning pitcher in two Governor’s-Cup clinchers for Columbus in 2010 and 2011 – more than proved his Triple-A worthiness with six no-hit innings to begin a terrific outing vs. Buffalo. He stood in line to start Game Five of the Chiefs’ playoff series with Pawtucket – a series that, of course, didn’t make it past Game Three.

And then, like a flash, he was gone. Espino broke camp back in Double-A and toiled through eight games with a 4.26 ERA and 0-3 record for the Senators, despite the impressive impression of the previous season. On May 24th, however, fortune smiled upon the Panamanian right-hander, with a return trip to Syracuse for a spot start against Indianapolis on his agenda.

Once again, Espino rose to the occasion. He authored an absolute gem, scattering four hits and no walks in seven scoreless innings. Somehow, that was merely the subhead.

The first home run by a Chiefs pitcher since 2012 clocks in as ninth on my list. My next moment will provide a firm and amusing mirror to this, but first, we’ll check back in with Eric…

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