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On the rise: Lakota East/Miami University product Hayden Senger following baseball dream in Brooklyn

Hayden Senger likes the look and feel of being a catcher, even if a little pain is part of the deal.

“I just think you really look cool in the gear,” said Senger, a 2015 Lakota East High School graduate and three-year baseball player for Miami University. “I think you have to have a different level of toughness to be a catcher, and I feel like I have that extra bit of toughness in me.

“I enjoy blocking baseballs. I enjoy wearing baseballs off the chest, the arms, the thighs, really anywhere. It’s a little bit of a weird thing to say, but I like having bruises on my body. It makes me feel like I’m doing a little extra.”

Baseball is a job now, but Senger is also just a 21-year-old kid living the dream in the minor leagues with the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Cyclones.

Hayden Senger, a Lakota East High School graduate who played three seasons at Miami University, talks about his baseball career Thursday during an interview in Niles, Ohio. He’s currently playing for the Class A Brooklyn (N.Y.) Cyclones.

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It’s been a whirlwind two months for Senger, who was drafted in the 24th round by the New York Mets and chose to turn pro. He played in 10 rookie-league games for the Kingsport (Tenn.) Mets, hit .400 and was promptly promoted to Class A (Short Season) Brooklyn.

Busy? Absolutely. Loving it? That too.

“It’s what I live for,” Senger said. “I love playing baseball.”

Life in the minors

It’s a Thursday afternoon on the road, and Hayden Senger is in a familiar spot. He’s in the food court at the mall.

On this day it’s the Eastwood Mall, which is part of the complex that includes Eastwood Field, home of the Mahoning Valley Scrappers.

The Cyclones are here in Niles for a New York-Penn League series with the Scrappers, and an afternoon at the mall is just part of the routine.

“Usually every day we take the bus to a 10:30 lift, then we come hang out at the mall until we have to be at the field, especially on (hotel) checkout days because we have to be out by 11 and we have nowhere to be until 4,” Senger said. “It ain’t the worst setup to have.”

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Senger was just starting to get settled in Kingsport when he got the call-up to Brooklyn. The hills of Tennessee and New York City are clearly two different places.

“I loved Kingsport,” Senger said. “The coaching staff was incredible. I loved my teammates there. I was fully expecting to stay in Kingsport the whole season, but I’m happy to be in Brooklyn.”

He had four doubles, a home run and six RBIs during his brief time in Kingsport.

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Senger is hitting .267 in five games (through Friday) with Brooklyn and isn’t playing every day, but that’s to be expected. There are three catchers on the roster, and the whole point of minor league baseball is to get everybody on the field to see what they can do.

“Just because you’re not playing a game doesn’t mean you don’t have something to work on,” Senger said. “I’m working every day.”

Miami coach Danny Hayden is one person who’s not surprised that Senger is where he is.

“With the skill set that he had as a high school recruit, we knew that if we did our jobs with him and Hayden remained motivated that this was going to be a very likely scenario for him,” Hayden said. “We talk about the draft a lot when we recruit players. If we’re recruiting a guy and we ask him if he wants to play professional baseball and he says no, that’s probably going to be the end of the recruitment process.

“Not to say that we want every player we recruit to sign as a junior, but I’d be OK with that because that means they played pretty good baseball while they were here. I would love guys to have that opportunity, to be in a position where they can start their professional career if it’s the right time.”

Senger said he’s learning new catching drills at this level and honing his craft on a daily basis. His defensive skills have never been in question, but there’s always things to improve.

One of his role models, former East catcher Jarett Rindfleisch, is currently with the Miami Marlins’ Class A (Advanced) team in Jupiter, Fla.

Senger’s hitting is going well right now, but there was a time in the not-so-distant past when that was a very different story.

Fighting the mental game

Hayden Senger hit .269 with five home runs and 20 RBIs while playing in 39 games as a freshman at Miami in 2016. It was a solid start to his collegiate career, and hopes were high for his sophomore campaign.

But things didn’t go as planned.

“We had a lot of young players like Hayden, we were playing a tremendously difficult schedule, and I think those young guys started putting a lot of pressure on themselves,” Danny Hayden said. “That’s a tough way to play baseball.”

The RedHawks underachieved with a 22-34 record and hit .256 as a unit. Senger sank right along with a large chunk of the team, hitting .172 with two homers and 14 RBIs in 41 games.

“I was able to not pay attention to my at-bats when I was catching because I was still having fun catching,” Senger said. “But whenever I was done catching, I would be like, ‘Oh, now I’ve got to go bat.’ I would not want to go hit BP in extra time or anything. I didn’t want to even hold a baseball bat. That’s how bad I was feeling.”

What he needed was somebody to get in his head and flush out the bad stuff, a hitting coach that could reach him. That turned out to be Justin Dedman, who was hired in June, 2017.

Senger still wasn’t swinging up to his standards last fall. By January, Dedman had become a fixture in his life.

“I was in a pretty bad place with baseball after my sophomore year,” Senger said. “I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I usually did. I’ve had some slumps in the past, but I’ve always enjoyed the game. But hitting .172 is a tough way to go for a whole year, especially when you’re striking out a lot.

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“Coach Dedman pulled up my stats with two strikes one time. I think I hit .033 with two strikes the whole season. That’s when I was kind of like, ‘All right, I need to figure something out with my approach to the plate and my mental game.’ That’s when I finally decided to actually listen to what he was telling me.”

Senger said he never got to a point where he wanted to quit. But with his draft stock falling, he did feel it was time to devote himself more to academics than baseball.

Dedman stayed on him. It may not have always been pleasant, but it worked.

“Winter break was really when he started to get on me about my routines and how much I’m hitting,” Senger said. “Me and Landon Stephens would go hit with him in the winter. He’d ask me every day, ‘Did you hit yesterday?’ Sometimes I would be honest and say, ‘No. I guess I didn’t really feel like hitting.’ And he would say something along the lines of, ‘So you’re letting your team down by not hitting yesterday?’

“There was no easy way out with this guy. I’d complain about something and he’d hit me with a question like, ‘Compared to what?’ He grilled me and Landon over the offseason. I started hitting every day. I started enjoying coming to the cages every day. I was finally hitting a baseball.”

There were very few changes in his offensive mechanics. This was a mental war.

“I made one small adjustment in my legs and one small adjustment in my hands,” Senger said. “I just learned how to make plans going up to the plate, learned to visualize success and how to learn from my mistakes in previous at-bats.”

It was a new and improved Hayden Senger that took the field for Miami in 2018. The RedHawks performed well as a team (35-20), and Senger led the everyday players with a .344 average, 17 doubles, two triples, three home runs and 34 RBIs.

That’s right — he doubled his batting average in one season. His defensive skills stayed at a very high level, and eventually the Mets called.

Senger didn’t actually get that called himself. He was in Massachusetts preparing to play with the Cotuit Kettleers in the Cape Cod League. His agent, Jeff Gatch, took the call from the Mets.

“I was actually taking BP with the Kettleers, and my coach Mike Roberts says to me, ‘Hayden, do you know you got drafted?’ ” said Senger, who didn’t get to play a game with Contuit. “I was like, ‘No, coach, I’ve been out here hitting BP for the last hour.’ I get out of the cage and everybody congratulated me, and the next morning I was heading back off to Ohio.”

Leaving school early wasn’t the easiest thing to do. Senger was majoring in kinesiology and pre-medical studies with the goal of going to medical school and becoming an orthopedic or exercise science doctor

He made it clear to interested teams that he wouldn’t consider leaving Miami for less than a $125,000 signing bonus with an agreement to pay for the rest of his schooling. That was the Mets’ offer, so he accepted.

Senger is three semesters away from getting his degree, and he said that work will get completed. His parents — Kevin and Susan, both Fairfield graduates — “were completely fine with me going on this journey.”

“My parents have always supported me in whatever I do,” Senger said. “I don’t think I’ll have a problem with going back and finishing. I love school. Honestly, I’m kind of a nerd. There’s always time to go back to school, but you never know if you’re going to get drafted again.”

The skills to succeed

What will it take for Hayden Senger to continue progressing through the minor leagues?

Danny Hayden said the Mets will want him to hit with power a little more consistently. Defensively, even the best players are always looking to tweak and sharpen their game.

“As good as he is right now, he’s still scratching the surface on how good he can be,” the Miami coach said. “From a skills standpoint, he’s as talented as anybody when it comes to throwing the baseball. There’s not five guys in the big leagues behind the plate with better arms than Hayden Senger.”

Three MU juniors signed with pro teams after this year’s amateur draft. Pitchers Nick Ernst (New York Yankees) and Zach Spears (Pittsburgh Pirates) were the other two.

Hayden felt it was the right move for all three players. He said Senger has come a long way since his humbling sophomore season.

“I think it would’ve been really easy for him to take a step back after that and say, ‘You know what? I’m going to be a doctor or maybe focus on some other things I’m really good at,’ ” Hayden said. “But he really committed himself to baseball. It definitely wasn’t the path of least resistance for him, but he went all in to see how good he could be at this game.

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“With every time he moves up and every accolade he gets, I think it’s more of a tribute to his work ethic than his ability. He’s outworking a lot of people to continue this ride. I can tell you this: If you took baseball away from Hayden Senger tomorrow, he’d still be a really, really successful person.”

Senger said Miami will always have a place in his heart. It may be surprising now, but he said MU was the only collegiate offer he received coming out of East.

His new workplace in Brooklyn is MCU Park. It’s part of Coney Island and one of the more iconic facilities in the minors.

“I can’t really even put into words how cool it is playing there every day,” Senger said. “Roller coaster in left field, big light tower in right, breeze from the ocean and you get the smell of salt water … really just a beautiful place to play baseball.”

Still, living in Brooklyn has its challenges.

“It’s a little bit more frantic and hectic than living in Liberty Township, Ohio,” Senger said. “It’s a little bit different lifestyle than I’ve ever seen. People don’t kid around when they talk about New York drivers. They do not yield to anything. They’re maniacs on the road.”

The Class A Columbia (S.C.) Fireflies are the next step in the Mets’ system. Senger isn’t focusing on another promotion, even after his quick move to Brooklyn.

“I just like taking it day by day,” he said. “I think when you start looking too far into the future at things you can’t really control, that’s when you get disappointed or you lose focus on the now. And the now is what’s important.”

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