Trenton Thunder Manager Tony Franklin earned the 2012 Eastern League Manager of the Year award last week for leading a club that has surpassed expectations and overcome adversity and injuries on a seemingly day to day basis to a 79-63 record and the Eastern Division crown. Tonight, Franklin and his Thunder will have to prove critics wrong yet again as they open the ELDS at First Energy Stadium in Reading against their division rival Phillies.
Not only will Trenton have to deal with a surging Reading pitching staff and arguably the most potent lineup in the league, led by EL MVP Darin Ruf, who blasted 20 home runs in the month of August alone, but they will also have to overcome the loss of their most dynamic power hitter, Luke Murton, who was unexpectedly promoted to Triple-A Scranton yesterday. Murton was one of the emotional leaders both on the field and in the clubhouse for Trenton and that’s before mentioning his team leading 25 home runs in the middle of the lineup; his intimidating presence will be nearly impossible to replicate this postseason.
The Phillies and Thunder met 13 times during the regular season and Reading narrowly won the season series by a 7-6 margin. Thunder All-Star ace Brett Marshall, who was runner up in the Eastern League Pitcher of the Year balloting, will be on the hill in Game One looking to stifle a Reading lineup that has been on a torrid tear of late. In his two starts against Reading during the season, Marshall posted a 1-1 record with a forgettable 5.14 ERA while allowing nine hits and striking out 14 in his 12 1/3 innings pitched.
Projected Pitching Matchups:
Game 1 - September 5 – 7:05 p.m. at First Energy Stadium – Trenton – Brett Marshall (13-7, 3.52 ERA) vs. Reading -Austin Hyatt (8-5, 4.62 ERA).
Breakdown: Marshall has been the most consistent arm arguably in the league all season, and certainly in the Trenton rotation. His 13 wins were the most for any Trenton pitcher since 2008. He has a knack for showing up in big games and relishes the opportunity to put the team in a position to win. Marshall has fared well on the road, earning nine of his 13 wins away from Waterfront Park, so opening the series on the road should not rattle Marshall in the slightest. Statistically he is coming off of his worst month of the season that saw him go 2-3 with a 6.03 ERA over six August starts. Certainly that could be credited to fatigue from the affects of setting a new career high in innings pitched with 158.1.
Hyatt opened his 2012 campaign with Triple-A Lehigh Valley and didn’t fair well at all in his 11 starts there, going 2-7 with a 6.33 ERA with a 1.62 WHIP and a .292 batting average against. Since joining Reading, Hyatt has fared much better in his last 10 starts, going 7-3 with a 3.79 ERA. In his last start against the Thunder, back on August 15, Hyatt took the loss; surrendering six runs, three earned over 4 1/3 innings. It should be noted that Hyatt has been a much better pitcher at home in Reading (3-1, 3.27 ERA) vs. the road where he is 5-4 with a 5.43 ERA.
Game 2 – September 6 – 7:05 p.m. at First Energy Stadium – Trenton – Shaeffer Hall (9-10, 3.67 ERA) vs. Reading -Trevor May (10-13, 4.87 ERA).
Breakdown: Hall has been a viable middle of the rotation pitcher for Trenton all season, but with the promotion of Vidal Nuno (9-5, 2.45 ERA) to Scranton, the importance of a quality start by Hall becomes all the more important. Despite dominating in the month of July (2-1, 2.03 ERA), Hall much like Marshall struggled dramatically in August, going 1-3 with a 4.97 ERA in the month. Trenton’s game one and game two starters had a combined 3-6 record with a 5.51 ERA in August, so they aren’t exactly coming into the postseason in any kind of rhythm.
Contrary, Trevor May has been quite good as of late having allowed just two earned runs or less in six of his last eight starts. As one of the Philadelphia Phillies top organization prospects, May appears that he may be turning the corner in fulfilling the promise that he has shown flashes of since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2008 draft.
Game 3 – September 7 – 7:05 p.m. at Waterfront Park – Reading – Ethan Martin (5-0, 3.18 ERA) vs. Trenton – Mikey O’Brien (5-7, 4.20 ERA).
Breakdown: O’Brien is coming off one of his better months of the season in which he went 1-3 in August with a 3.12 ERA. O’Brien faced the Phillies twice in a span of five days; first on August 9 at home where he dazzled Reading, going six strong innings, allowing just one run on three hits but suffered a tough luck loss. O’Brien again took the mound against the Phillies in Reading on August 15 where he was tagged for four earned runs and nine hits over six innings in suffering yet another loss.
Martin was the 15th overall pick in the 2008 draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Phillies acquired Martin earlier this season as part of the package that netted LA outfielder Shane Victorino. At 23, Martin appears to be coming into his own in 2012, having gone 8-6 with a 3.58 ERA in 20 starts with the Dodgers Double-A Chattanooga affiliate. Since arriving in Reading, Martins consistency has carried over as he is undefeated (5-0) with a 3.18 ERA in seven starts. More impressively is the fact that Martin has surrendered just one run over 20.1 innings pitched on the road spanning three starts since the trade.
Game 4 – September 8 – 7:05 p.m. at Waterfront Park – Reading – Adam Morgan (4-1, 3.53 ERA) vs. Trenton – Nik Turley (1-0, 5.40 ERA).
Breakdown: After turning 23 this past Tuesday, the southpaw Turley is being thrown into the postseason fire after being promoted to Trenton from Single-A Tampa over the weekend. In his lone start for Trenton on Monday, Turley surrendered three earned runs over five innings to notch the win in the team’s final game of the season at Binghamton. In 21 starts for Tampa, Turley had an excellent season, going 9-5 with a 2.89 ERA while striking out 116 batters in 112 innings pitched.
Turley will match up with fellow lefty Adam Morgan, who has made six starts for Reading since being promoted from Single-A ball where he was an all-star earlier this season. Since being promoted, Morgan has been stellar, going 4-1 with a 3.53 ERA. In his limited action in Double-A, Morgan has faced Trenton in two of his six starts, beating them both times allowing just two earned runs and six hits in 13 innings pitched.
Game 5 – September 9 – 4:05 p.m. at Waterfront Park – Starters TBA
Trenton: With the loss of Murton, right fielder and cleanup hitter, Zoilo Almonte (.277, 21 HR, 70 RBI) and shortstop Addison Maruszak (.276, 16 HR, 59 RBI) are the only big-time run producers remaining in the lineup for the Thunder. For a club that blasted a franchise record 162 long balls, one of the top marks in all of minor league baseball, many of those blasts, 59 of them, came off the bats of Murton, Melky Mesa and Cody Johnson who are all either injured or now in Scranton. The pressure suddenly falls on Almonte and Maruszak to carry the offensive load and drive in runs.
Perhaps one of the biggest offensive keys for Trenton will be Tyler Austin, who was promoted from Tampa on Saturday. Austin has the potential to become a perennial big league all-star. The 20-year old Austin, dubbed a “mega prospect,” by General Manager Brian Cashman last week, had a star studded campaign that saw him hit .322 while clubbing 17 homers and driving in 80 runs with a .400 on base percentage. One huge element that Austin adds to the Trenton lineup is speed and above average instincts on the base paths. Austin stole 23 bases this season and was caught stealing on just two occasions, so he is certainly capable of swiping a bag to move himself into scoring position.
Reading: By now just about everyone on the baseball landscape has heard of the legend that has become Darin Ruf in Reading. The slugging Phillies outfielder produced one of the greatest offensive seasons in the long and storied history of the Eastern League which garnered him honors as the leagues MVP last week. Ruf led all of minor league baseball with 38 home runs, 20 of which came in the month of August, to go along with 104 RBI and a stellar .317 batting average. Dubbed as the “Babe,” by the Reading faithful, Ruf shattered the franchise single season home run record which was previously owned by Ryan Howard. The Thunder pitching staff will be on notice to be very careful in pitching to Ruf, particularly with runners on base, because he has proven time and time again that he will make you regret it. In 12 games against Trenton this season, he has haunted them to a tune of eight homers while posting a .458 average. Keeping Ruf in check is the single biggest factor in this series.
Prediction: Despite bearing down all season and surpassing all expectations and overcoming countless obstacles, Trenton will have to climb another huge barrier if they’re going to advance to the ELCS. Despite winning the division, the Thunder have played some of their poorest baseball of the season over the course of the last month. We all know that in the postseason the slate is wiped clean and it becomes a matter of who is playing the best ball at that point in time.
At this juncture, Reading is click on all cylinders with quality starting pitching every night, a balanced lineup that features the leagues MVP as its anchor, and a bullpen that has the leagues best closer in Justin Friend at the back end who has converted 24 of 24 save chances and surrendered just one run the entire season. Trenton meanwhile is battling a tremendous roster overhaul due to promotions and is now forced to get by with a rotation that has been shaky for much of the last month and a lineup that just lost its most prolific power bat.
I think the Thunder need to play perfect baseball for them to emerge victorious. I will never count them out, they are where they are today because of their ability to overcome, but from a pure baseball standpoint, I think Reading wins in five games.