TRENTON, NJ – Thunder manager Bobby Mitchell had a look of satisfaction on his face following his team’s 3-1 win over the Altoona Curve Friday night before 5,744 fans at Arm&Hammer Park.
To begin with, his club (66-40) moved within four games of first-place Reading in the Eastern League East. It advanced to five-and-a-half games ahead of the Hartford Yard Goats (60-45) in the race for the East wild-card spot. The Thunder also won their second straight against the Eastern League West-leading Curve (58-47), which came in with a six-game winning streak.
“It’s always good to come out on top against good teams, like the one we played tonight,” said Mitchell. “Our guys have played hard all year.
“Our pitching has been good. Except for a hiccup here and there, our defense has been excellent. And, over the last month, our hitting has come along.”
That was the script the Thunder followed Friday night. Righty Ronald Herrera recorded his third straight solid effort, pitching into the seventh inning, allowing no runs and just three bits, striking out four. He threw 98 pitches – 64 for strikes – in improving to 8-6, 3.86 with his second straight win after not tasting victory since June 19.
Herrera, who was part of a no-hitter in April, started quickly, scuffled a bit, missed some time and has now rebounded.
“He’s throwing all his pitches for strikes,” said Mitchell. “That allows him to use his fastball more and keep hitters off-balance.”
Herrera, who just turned 21 in May, got the support he needed in the bottom of the fourth, with Trenton scoring a trio of runs off Altoona starter Tyler Eppler (7-8). With runners on first and second and one out, catcher Kyle Higashioka lined a double down the third-base line for a 2-0 lead. After Billy McKinney lined out and an infield single from Mike Ford, Abiatal Avelino singled up the middle to give the Thunder a 3-0 cushion.
Trenton center fielder Dustin Fowler had a two-hit night and raised his average to a season-high .283 after batting .385 (15-for-39) with 12 RBIs in his last 10 games.
“Once Dustin got his feet wet at this level, he really has gotten better and better,” said Mitchell.
After Diego Moreno, just down from Triple-A Scranton, surrendered Altoona’s run in the top of the eighth – denying the Thunder their 13th shutout of 2016 – right-hander Tyler Jones, who has not allowed an earned run in his last six outings, was flawless over the final 1.2 innings to pick up his sixth save.
With Jonathan Holder’s promotion to Triple-A Scranton, Jones’ status takes a jump.
“Tyler is a valuable reliever,” said Mitchell. “With Holder gone, he’ll be closing most of the time. He is really throwing well.”
The Thunder play the third game of the series Saturday evening, sending righty Will Carter (0-1, 5.40), making his second Double-A start, to the mound to face the Curve’s Alex McRae (4-5, 6.89).
“Will was throwing with a lot of power and keeping it down in Portland.” said Mitchell. “He was getting a lot of groundballs.”
Following games with Altoona Saturday and Sunday, the Thunder will welcome Hartford for an important three-game series Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.