When last we checked in on Connecticut’s AA team, they were still the Wandering Yard Goats, roaming the pastures of the East Coast while their new palace was stuck in government limbo, a brick facade with no date for completion. Since last summer, however, deals have been struck and deadlines met. And, on April 13, Dunkin Donuts Park, a year overdue and millions over budget, finally became the home of the Hartford Yard Goats. The Goats, however, do not appear to like their new pasture.
But this is not just a story of the first homestand for the AA Rockies. For last season, the Yard Goats did take a detour in their wanderlust to check in to their home state, spending a couple of series 40 miles southeast of the capital city in Norwich, where the Connecticut Tigers shared Dodd Stadium with their home state brethren.
In 2016, the Wanderers finished with a 74-67 overall record. While that left them far from a playoff spot in the East Division of the Eastern League, a winning record while spending all season on the road is a rather remarkable achievement. However, their time in the Nutmeg State was far from ideal. The Yard Goats did not take well to Dodd, losing their first six contests in the state and ending with a 7-12 record over their brief run of games. Which makes their 67-55 record outside their home territory all the more remarkable.
The 2016 Yard Goats were filled with some quick rising players. David Dahl batted .278/.367/.500 with 36 extra-base hits in 76 games for Hartford before ending the year with the Colorado Rockies, putting up a near identical .315/.359/.500 line over 63 games in the majors. Raimel Tapia saw action in 104 Yard Goats games with an .813 OPS before finishing the season with the Rockies, seeing 41 plate appearances over 22 games. And cycle-meister Pat Valaika put up a .764 OPS last season for Hartford, before seeing action in 13 games for Colorado in September. Valaika was just called back up to Colorado, Dahl is on the Rockies’ DL, and Tapia started the season in The Show.
The pitching staff also saw callups to the major leagues last season. Reliever Matt Carasiti and starters Tyler Anderson and German Marquez each made their MLB debut after beginning with the Yard Goats. Starters Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland had to wait until the beginning of the 2017 season, both making the Rockies Opening Day roster.
The 2017 Yard Goats, however, may not have as much movement up to the majors. Last season, the majority of the team spent the year with the Modesto Nuts in the California League – a team that finished with an overall record of 60-80. However, the team was much better in the second half of the season, with a 34-36 record after the All-Star Break.
Last Thursday, Hartford’s new ballpark finally opened its doors to rave reviews. The Yard Goats came in off a 3-4 opening road trip, alternating losses and wins in their series in Richmond, Virginia and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The stage was set for an opening night win at their new digs, the script was written.
But, the Fisher Cats of New Hampshire had different plans. The Cats, who like the Tigers, opened their stadium last season to the Wandering Goats for multiple games that they themselves did not participate in, took nearly all the glorious firsts of the stadium. Ryan McBroom scored the first run in the top of the second. Gunnar Heidt golfed the first home run in the top of the eighth. Carlos Ramirez garnered the first win as the Fisher Cats used a two-run seventh and a three-run eighth to pass by the Goats, 7-2. The first hit, a leadoff single by Omar Carrizales, belonged to the Yard Goats, however… as did the first caught stealing (also Carrizales) and the first stolen base (by Ashley Graeter).
Ryan McMahon was the first Yard Goat to leave the yard in the first inning on Good Friday, but his offensive heroics were not enough to overcome a disastrous start from Parker French, who relinquished eight runs – half unearned – in 3 ⅓ innings, and a defensive maelstrom of five errors, which led to a second consecutive home loss by a final of 11-7.
Saturday night, the Goats were, yet again, left high and dry by their starting pitcher. Luis Alberto Niebla coughed up five runs in the second inning, and another in the third, which was all the men from the Granite State needed to pick up a third successive victory at DD Park. While Niebla eventually settled to go five innings, the Hartford offense could only put five runs on the board in the 8-5 loss.
With Easter off, the Yard Goats were certainly hoping good things would come their way as they opened their second home series against the Harrisburg Senators. Instead, the newest stadium in baseball held their first barnburner, an extra-inning affair with enough twists and turns to make M. Night Shyamalan take notice.
As had been the case in the first three games, the road squad was the first to puncture the scoreboard, with Alec Keller opening the scoring with a solo home run in the first. The Senators would add single runs in the third and fifth, to take a 3-0 lead. But the home Goats took to grazing, picking up a pair in the bottom of the fifth and another in the sixth to tie the game at three. The Senators would pick up a run in the seventh to retake the lead, but these Goats were hungry for a lead. Hartford loaded the bases with one out, and Ryan McMahon drove them all home with a triple to centerfield. For the first time, Hartford had a lead at home! The Goats would score twice more in the frame, taking an 8-4 advantage to the top of the eighth.
Alas, the lead was short lived. Shane Broyles picked up two outs in the inning before giving up a three-run bomb to Yadiel Hernandez. D.J. Johnson would come in to attempt to keep the lead, but faced seven batters without an out being recorded. Three hits, four walks, and four runs later, the Yard Goats were down 11-8. Another run in the ninth by the Sens saw the Goats come up for their last at-bats down by four.
But Wander Suero could not keep Hartford off the board, and after a two-out, three-run blast by McMahon, the score was tied up at a dozen a piece. To extras they went as both teams settled down, both keeping the other off the board in the 10th and 11th. The Senators were the first to score in extras, as pitcher Mark Blackmar opened the frame with a blast to left center. Harrisburg would score once more in the inning, and the Goats were once again on the verge of their fourth consecutive Connecticut loss. However, Blackmar lost the plot in his third inning of work, as a single and a pair of walks loaded the bases with no outs, and a single by Josh Fuentes knotted up the score. With runners on first and third and no one out, surely Hartford would pick up its first win in the capital city since 1952.
But, the final Shyamalanic twist was as obvious as it was detrimental to the hopes of Yard Goats fans. Blackmar struck out Jan Vazquez before reloading the bases with a walk. Emerson Jimenez tapped a Blackmar pitch back to the pitcher, who threw to catcher Spencer Kieboom for the second out of the frame. And when Luis Ramirez struck out, the golden moment was lost… and the 13th inning would finish off Hartford’s hope for a win.
Luis Ramirez came out for his second inning of work after giving up a pair in the 12th, and was able to garner two outs while placing two Senators on the bags. On his last pitch in the Colorado organization, Alec Keller rocketed a Ramirez pitch to left field for a double, scoring two runs. While Keller was put out at third going for the triple, Ramirez and the rest of the Goats hoped for one more improbable comeback. Ryan McMahon picked up his fifth hit of the day with a single, but the other three Goats facing Derek Self were quickly put out, and the Yard Goats had taken on their fourth consecutive home defeat.
There was no such drama on Tuesday night, as Harrisburg picked up five runs in the third, and followed it up with a pair each in the fourth and fifth, to put down Hartford 9-2 – the Yard Goats’ fifth loss in as many home games. The losing would not continue on Wednesday night, as rain postponed the scheduled affair between the two clubs.
While the Yard Goats have generally struggled with their nine losses in a dozen games, there have been a few bright spots. Tops among them would be 22-year-old Ryan McMahon, batting .388/.446/.735 with nine extra-base hits, nine runs scored, and 15 driven in on the young season entering Thursday. Max White (23) has also been on fire offensively, putting up a line of .368/.467/.632 with six extra-base hits and 13 runs scored.
The pitching has been a little bit more ugly, with the team ERA standing at 5.67 on Thursday morning. However, starter Yency Almonte had only allowed four runs in his first two starts while striking out 11 over 10 ⅔ innings. Twenty-one-year-old Ryan Castellani has whiffed 20 batters in just 16 innings over his first three starts of the season, but with five unearned runs allowed, his 3.94 ERA overestimates how well he has pitched early in the season. The defense has been less than stellar with 14 errors committed, with first baseman Collin Ferguson surprisingly leading the team with four in only seven games.
Last night, Yency Almonte and the bullpen brought the win home for the Yard Goats. Almonte allowed only four hits and whiffed ten in seven scoreless. Three relief pitchers also kept the Senators off the board in the final two frames, as Hartford picked up its debut win at Dunkin Donuts Park with a paper-thin margin, 1-0. The Goats will resume their wandering ways next week, returning home next Friday where they hope to start a home winning streak. Their opponent: the Richmond Flying Squirrels – the former AA residents of Dodd Stadium in Norwich. A fight for the soul of the Nutmeg State will be at hand.