The Trenton Thunder returned home Friday night to Waterfront Park fresh off of a dramatic, 4-1 come from behind victory on Thursday night to even their highly competitive ELDS match up with the Reading Phillies a one game apiece. Both games had been hard fought battles that were decided in the seventh inning or later; Friday night’s game would follow the same narrative.
“Always this time of the year, it’s going to be tight,” said Thunder Manager Tony Franklin. “All games that we play are going to be closely contested and it’s going to come down to the wire. This is playoff baseball at its best.”
Franklin added, “It’s even more intense when you get to the big league level, but this is what this level is designed to do. It’s supposed to teach them how to play in an atmosphere such as this and it’s not easy to do. They make it look easy, but it’s not easy. It’s great baseball to watch. It tells you a lot about the individuals out there on the field and what they’re all about and you can see there pretty good on both sides.”
Franklin summoned righty Mikey O’Brien (5-7, 4.20 ERA) to the mound to try and give Trenton the upper hand in the series. O’Brien was coming off one of his better stretches of the season, having gone 1-3 with a 3.12 ERA in August but had struggled mightily in three starts against Reading this season, going 0-3 with a 5.50 ERA.
Opposing O’Brien was one of the Phillies premier young pitching prospects in Ethan Martin (5-0, 3.18 ERA). Martin was the first round draft selection of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008 and was acquired by Philadelphia on July 31 as a key piece in the return package for outfielder Shane Victorino. Since the trade, Martin had not lost a start and had surrendered just one run on the road in 20.1 innings pitched spanning three starts.
Martin has always had lofty expectations that come with being a top draft selection but had yet to live up to them prior to this season. Martin demonstrated last night why the Phillies believe he has turned to corner in his trek to fulfill his promise.
O’Brien had on of his best outings of the season on the most critical stage yet; throwing five innings of one run ball, allowing just two hits. After Zoilo Almonte doubled home a run in the first inning for Trenton to give them the early 1-0 lead, Reading struck for a run in the third off of O’Brien on a well struck double by third baseman Cody Asche to knot things up at 1.
The game remained tied at 1 through seven innings as Reading came to bat in the top of the eighth. Franklin opted to start the inning with lefty reliever Lee Hyde (2-3, 3.76 ERA) to face the heart of the Reading order. After striking out Tyson Gillies to lead off the frame, the hot hitting Asche smoked another double to put a man in scoring position for Eastern League MVP, Darin Ruf. Having watched Ruf torch his club all season to the tune of eight home runs and a .458 batting average in 12 regular season meetings, Franklin was not about to let Ruf beat his team again. Hyde intentionally walked Ruf to put runners on first and second base with one out to bring Tug Hulett to the plate.
What ensued next is arguably the biggest play of the series through the first three meetings. With Ruf leading, Thunder first baseman Tyler Austin snuck in behind him and Hyde threw over on a quick snap throw to pick off Ruf for a huge second out. Hulett then grounded out softly to end the Phillies scoring threat.
“The pickoff play was about as huge as it gets right there,” said Franklin. “It gets us two outs in the inning, number one. We didn’t pitch to Ruf and then we end up picking him off. That’s what guys who are thinking about situations do. Lee is in the ball game, seventh, eighth, ninth inning against the lefty, and here, it comes up. That’s what it’s supposed to be about, guys are always thinking.”
Hyde added, “All the credit goes to Luke Murton,” who was unexpectedly promoted from Trenton to Scranton prior to the series. “We were doing PFP’s, pickoffs and rundowns before one of the games probably about two months ago. I’ve had the snap throw; I’ve picked a few guys off with it earlier in the season. Usually a back pick to first base with lefties, the first baseman breaks off. Murton came up with an idea of trying to sneak in behind him and I do the snap throw. It was a good spot for it and it worked out; it was a big play for us.”
With Austin playing first base, a guy who is relatively in experienced at the position, Hyde said he and Austin both game planned for the play prior to the game.
“When I found out he was playing first I came in and told him if the situation comes up and we get a chance to do it, let’s try and run the play. If we can steal an out, we’ll take one; we definitely talked about it before the game.”
Heading to the bottom of the eighth inning, Martin had already thrown 99 pitches but had dominated Thunder hitters with an impressive array of a slider, curveball and cut fastball that had gotten him 11 strikeouts while having walked nobody up to that point.
Austin led off the inning with a hard base knock into left field before being sacrificed over to second on a bunt by Walter Ibarra. The next batter, Adonis Garcia roped a ball to Asche at third, but bobbled the exchange which allowed for Austin to retreat back to second and Garcia to reach first safely. After a deep fly out to center field by Ramon Flores, Austin was able to tag and advance to third.
With two outs, the struggling David Adams came to the plate looking to drive home the possible go-ahead run in yet another tight game. Adams battled Martin intensely before stroking a base knock through the right side of the infield for a single to give Trenton the 2-1 advantage.
“That was one heck of an at bat,” said Franklin. “After the first two or three at bats he had tonight, to come through with a hit there against the type of pitcher we had, with the type of pitches he was throwing, the placement of where he hit that ball, you couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
Franklin added, “That’s what it’s all about. The guys who have the spotlight on them and come with all of the credentials are supposed to do that.”
Adams admits after his recent struggles heading into that at bat against a pitcher like Martin, he was just trying to put the bat on the ball and make something happen.
“The last few games and those first few at bats, I’m honestly just going up there and battling,” admitted Adams. “I got down, 1-2, or whatever it was and at that point I’m just thinking put the ball in play. Fortunately, I did that. It wasn’t the hardest hit but, I hit it in the right spot and sometimes that’s all you’ve got to do in this game. A couple of guys told me that last pitch was supposed to be in; I think he just missed away right there; he didn’t miss much tonight, that’s for sure.”
On facing a guy like Martin on a night where all of his pitches were working so well, Adams said, “That’s the third time we’ve faced him this year and the first couple of times I didn’t think he was as good as he was tonight. Tonight, I thought he was lights out; I’m not going to lie. He was spotting up fastballs in, out. He was throwing the slider for strikes, curveball when he wanted to. He did a great job and I think we’ve got to tip our hats to him.”
Franklin added in regards to Martin, “He spotted up his pitches very well tonight; he’s got really good stuff. Slate [Hitting Coach Tommy Slater] told me, “This guy’s tough tonight.” I said, “Yeah, it’s going to be tough to score some runs off of him.”
Adams base hit drove Martin out of the game and put him on the hook for a loss. Reading reliever Tyler Knigge came on to replace Martin and was greeted rudely by Almonte as he promptly stroked a single up the middle to drive home Garcia for the 3-1 lead. Mark Montgomery came on to pitch the ninth and worked around a leadoff walk by striking out two of the next three batters to notch the save and subsequently put Trenton on the brink of advancing to the ELCS Saturday night with a 2-1 series advantage.