2015: A Chiefs Odyssey – Eric’s #5

So much for not overlapping…

5. Syracuse’s Favorite Summer Holiday: Strasmas

Stephen Strasburg made two rehab starts with the Chiefs in 2015 (Syracuse Chiefs)

Stephen Strasburg made two rehab starts with the Chiefs in 2015 (Syracuse Chiefs)

“When baseball’s amateur draft begins Tuesday night, Stephen Strasburg, a right-handed pitcher from San Diego State, is expected to be taken by the Washington Nationals with the first pick. This is because going any earlier than first would require a pretty nifty reversal of time-space, the only power with which Strasburg’s 102-mile-per-hour fastball has not yet been credited.”

That is how the June 6, 2009 New York Times article began on that year’s draft and the would be #1 pick. Pick your superlative, it was attached to the hard-throwing right hander. Syracuse got to be a part of Strasburg’s meteoric and unprecedented rise through the Nats system back in 2010, when he was routinely known as the best pitching prospect ever. But when Strasburg returned to Syracuse in July of 2015, the viewpoint around Washington and baseball was not of someone who had lived up to that hype, but as someone who we weren’t quite sure of where he fit in the Nats rotation going forward. Kevin already outlined the specifics of Strasburg’s two Syracuse outings. But what made both starts fascinating was that taken together, they illustrated a microcosm of his season and in some ways his career.

Strasburg had spent time on the disabled list twice in 2015 before taking the NBT Bank Stadium mound in late July. He had posted a sub-par 5.15 ERA in 13 starts early in the season. And in that first start he just seemed off, even committing a bases-loaded balk in four innings of three-run, four-hit ball.

But then five days later, Strasburg was brilliant. He struck out 11 in five and two-thirds innings, a performance reminding us all who was out there. Sure he may not be the best pitcher ever. But as Strasburg left the mound after that second start the message was clear. I’m still Stephen Strasburg and I’m still about as good as any pitcher in baseball. The results the rest of the year in Washington certainly proved that, as Strasburg posted a 2.09 ERA in his final 9 starts of the year.

Once again, a trip through Syracuse played a part of a Stephen Strasburg season.

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 – Eric’s #6

In fact, I’ll pick up right where you left off…

6. The Comeback Chiefs Do It One More Time

The 2015 Syracuse Chiefs were fighters. I mentioned it in my #10 moment, and its been a theme of this look back so far. The Chiefs were in no way the best team in the I.L. in 2015, but you’d be hard pressed to find a group that fought back as many times as Syracuse did. That credo was on display so many times, but maybe never more than during that last game of the season.

Emmanuel Burriss' Chiefs career was capped with a season finale walk-off.

Emmanuel Burriss’ Chiefs career was capped with a season finale walk-off (Jeff Irizarry)

The Chiefs-RailRiders season-finale (as Kevin so eloquently described yesterday), was nothing more than formality. The only thing left to officially decide in the I.L. playoff picture was whether the RailRiders would be headed to Columbus or Indianapolis for their first-round playoff series (it would be Indy). The last day of the season is notorious for being one of the fastest games of the season, with a lot of first-pitch swings and short counts. But as the game rolled along, neither team played that way. In a lot of ways it was a game played for the love of the game.

By the bottom of the eighth, I was already out of the radio booth and headed to the camera well adjoining the Chiefs third-base dugout. Syracuse led 3-2 into the ninth (after coming back from a 2-1 deficit two innings earlier), and Juan Gutierrez was on the mound trying to close it out. I was in my customary position ready for a final on-field interview after the last out. But the game did not end quickly.

Scranton skipper Dave Miley still had a few tricks up his sleeve in what would end up being his final regular season game in an 10-year stint as the Yankees Triple-A manager (9 with SWB). Miley pinch-hit Kyle Roller, who singled, then pinch-ran Ben Gamel, two starters who were resting that day before the playoff run. After a walk, Ali Castillo drove home his third run to square the game at three.

With the potential for a Chiefs rally possible at any point in the ninth (and then in extra innings), I stayed down on field level, watching the last three innings from a fan’s perspective. This is something baseball announcers rarely get to do for their team as we’re obviously a little busy upstairs during the game. The idea is to be down there for a limited time with the game’s conclusion impending, but on this day the game simply would not end.

In the bottom of the ninth, and top and bottom halves of the tenth, each team would put runners on but could not score. What was noteworthy though, is that Burriss was inserted into the game as a pinch runner in the tenth. And he would prove hero soon enough.

The RailRiders took the lead in the eleventh against Connor Overton on Castillo’s fourth RBI hit of the game. Overton had not thrown an inning above Low-A ball in his life before his emergency call up from near-by Auburn. But Overton fought his way through that inning, striking out Aaron Judge and Rob Segedin in impressive fashion to end the frame and keep the deficit at just one.

It would have been so easy for the Chiefs to just go down quickly in the 11th and the long day and long season would be over. But that just wasn’t the way the 2015 Chiefs did things.

Syracuse had runners on first and second with two outs in the 11th, and Miley, somewhat oddly, made a pitching change and brought in Andury Acevedo. Acevedo did not get an out. In fact he barely threw a strike. He walked Scott Sizemore on six pitches to load the bases and Jason Martinson on four pitches to bring in the tying run. Then it was time for Manny, who singled to right-center field on the third pitch, winning the game and ending the season in such a special way.

The Chiefs celebrate their season-finale walk-off win (Courtesy Erin Locascio/27 Outs Baseball)

The Chiefs celebrate their season-finale walk-off win (Courtesy Erin Locascio/27 Outs Baseball)

When I found Manny in the celebration and brought him over for the interview, you could see the pure and true joy on his face, and all of his teammates faces. I am usually pretty good at avoiding the gatorade bath, but Manny grabbed me as the guys came out with the bucket and made sure I couldn’t escape this one. It was a special moment personally and full-circle way to cap off my first Triple-A season.

Sometimes when you are in the grind of a season, it’s easy to lose sight of what baseball means to people. That last game meant absolutely nothing in the standings, but it was the farthest thing from meaningless. Being down in the stands that afternoon and getting to watch the last three innings play out with the Chiefs’ loyal brethren, it illustrated what baseball is all about. Folks on the edge of their seat the whole way through extras. The Chiefs not giving in and fighting all the way to the end meant the world to people there. And then seeing not relief that the game was over on the players faces, but pure joy and emotion is something that shouldn’t go unnoticed. That was the DNA of the 2015 Chiefs. That’s why we love baseball. It’s a day I’ll remember for a long time.

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 – Eric’s #7

7. Mighty Paolo at the Bat

Paolo Espino was simply brilliant in his first Chiefs start (Herm Card)

Paolo Espino was simply brilliant in his first Chiefs start of 2015 (Herm Card)

Kevin already laid out Paolo’s superlatives with both the bat and on the mound in his first Triple-A start of 2015. But what made May 24th even more special was a) when it fell on the calendar and b) what it started.

On the calendar, the Chiefs had lost eight straight going into that Sunday of Memorial Day weekend against Indianapolis. And after eight losses in a row, you wouldn’t expect a last minute Double-A spot-starter to be the guy that ended the streak. Let alone, it was a pitcher hitting his first career home run that sparked the offense to get the win.

The win would prove even more significant, as it would end up as the only win in Syracuse’s worst stretch of the year, winning just that lone game in 21 played from May 16th-June 5th.

But more importantly, Espino’s greatness on the mound proved to be no fluke, and just the start of an outstanding year. The Panamanian right-hander was promoted to Syracuse again six days later, and allowed just two runs in six and two-thirds innings in Durham. Six days after that, back on the roster he went, and once again it was seven innings, only two runs. Over Espino’s first six starts with Syracuse in 2015, he went at least six and two-thirds innings and allowed no more than two runs in each. Six quality starts, and a 1.30 ERA. And even that wasn’t all. Espino finished a career year with a 3.21 ERA, and posted 12 quality starts. Pretty impressive for a last minute spot starter.

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).

Chiefs Roster Updates and 2015: A Chiefs Odyssey – Eric’s #8

(Clockwise L-R) A.J. Cole, Taylor Jordan and Matt Grace are set to return to Syracuse in 2016 while Wilmer Difo will make his Chiefs debut.

(Clockwise L-R) A.J. Cole, Taylor Jordan and Matt Grace are set to return to Syracuse in 2016 while Wilmer Difo will make his Chiefs debut. (First three courtesy Herm Card, Difo courtesy Ed Sheahin)

By Eric Gallanty (@ericgallanty)

I’ll get back to the A Chiefs Odyssey series later in this post, but the Chiefs roster is starting to fill up and I want to start there. Here are the first few moves out of Nats’ camp that may affect the Chiefs:

From the looks of things, the Chiefs could have another great pitching staff in 2016. We’ll post all of the roster moves affecting the Chiefs on our @Chiefsradio twitter page as they come in.

Now to the good stuff…

We haven’t had any overlap yet and that will continue for today. But I don’t think we’re quite done reliving Josh Johnson’s pitching prowess. More on that later. I mentioned in my #9 that Trea Turner’s first Triple-A home run was a candidate for the Chiefs turning point of the season. But in many ways, the real turning point came on June 15th…

8. The Keyes to the Turnaround

Ricky Hague hit his first and only Triple-A home run of the season in his first career Triple-A at-bat on June 15th.

Ricky Hague hit his first and only Triple-A home run in his first career Triple-A at-bat on June 15th (Jeff Irizarry)

The Chiefs returned home from the annual Ohio road trip 24 games under .500, winners of only 20 of their first 64 games in 2015. And as the team busses rolled into the NBT Bank Stadium parking lot in the early morning hours of June 15th, there wasn’t much to signal that a turnaround was on the day’s horizon.

There were, however, two new call-ups from Harrisburg who would join the Chiefs that June Monday. Kevin Keyes and Ricky Hague were each promoted to Triple-A for the first time in their careers. Roster moves of course happen a lot at this level, and on paper, Keyes and Hague would not have been the guys you’d peg to be the saviors from Harrisburg. Keyes held a .235 average with five home runs in 56 games with the Senators in 2015, while Hague was at .259, without a home run in nearly a calendar year. But any assumptions about these two Triple-A newcomers would be very, very wrong.

Kevin Keyes’ first Triple-A at-bat came with two outs in the bottom of the first inning with Jason Martinson on second base. Ricky Hague was three batters away. What happened from here, no one saw coming…

Keyes’ first of two doubles in the game was just the start to the first inning magic. Three batters later, with the Chiefs up 2-0, Ricky Hague stepped in with two on and still two out. Remember, Hague’s last home run was in June of 2014…

Kevin Keyes hit .462 in his first week with the Chiefs.

Kevin Keyes hit .462 in his first week with the Chiefs (Scott Schild)

It would be Hague’s only home run of the season with the Chiefs, but boy did it have an impact. The ball just snuck over the right field wall in the corner to give the Chiefs their largest offensive output in an inning to that point in the season.

Keyes and Hague weren’t one-hit wonders either. Keyes went on to hit .462 in his first Triple-A week, with a league-leading 12 hits, four doubles, five runs scored, and seven RBIs, slugging .615. The week didn’t go unnoticed as Keyes was named I.L. Batter of the Week. Not to be outdone, Hague picked up a hit in each of his first six I.L. games, holding a .381 average with seven RBIs as well. The Chiefs picked up their first four-game win streak of the season during the week, and things were on their way.

Now for the turning point question. Was it June 15th? There are arguments for and against. But what is true is that from that date forward, no one in the International League had a better record than the 2015 Syracuse Chiefs. Hague and Keyes were here to stay.

On to #7…

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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