TRENTON, NJ – In his first year with the Yankees organization, Trenton Thunder Manager Bobby Mitchell guided his team to 87 wins; the most the franchise has ever won as a Yankees affiliate and the second-best mark in the organization’s history. Despite the team’s historical campaign, Trenton still fell 2.5 games shy of Reading for the Eastern Division championship.
As a result, the Thunder will host Reading for the opener of a five-game Division Series match-up beginning Wednesday night at ARM & HAMMER Park.
“It’s says a lot when you get compliments from other managers about the way that your team plays,” admitted Mitchell. “I have had three managers tell me that they love the way that we play the game and get after it. These guys just don’t quit.”
This first-round match-up has been in the makings for what feels like ages. Both Trenton and the Fightin’ Phils were the clear class of the Eastern League and have been on a collision course for this inevitable series since June. Both teams play very different styles of play to beat their opponents and it is going to be fascinating to see this series unfold. Trenton led the Eastern League in team ERA, strikeouts and surrendered the fewest hits. Reading led the EL in team batting, homers, hits, runs and total bases. Something has got to give.
These two teams saw each other 15 times over the course of the regular season; they split 12 games at ARM & HAMMER Park and Reading swept the lone three games that the teams played at FirstEnergy Park.
Reading clubbed their way to 89 wins thanks large in part to the best power-duo in all of the MiLB. Outfielder Dylan Cozens, who set the new single season franchise home run mark with 40, also drove in a league best 125 runs.
First baseman Rhys Hoskins belted 38 homers of his own and drove in 116 runs. Designated hitter Jake Fox also hit 23 homers and drove in 71 runs this season.
The unexpected power surge from Cozens and Hoskins coupled with the smaller dimensions at FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading set this series up to be a battle of ball parks. It will be vital for Trenton to shut both of those sluggers down in the first two games of the series before the remainder of the series shifts to Reading, where the two have hit 54 of their 78 homers.
“They hit ball a long way and they do it well,” said Mitchell. “They have the top two guys in the league in homers and RBI; we have to pitch well and keep them from hurting us. They have Fox, too. He can hit the ball out of the ball park. There is not a lot of guys in that lineup that you can rest up on. They’re either hitting home runs or hitting for average. This series is going to very interesting and very competitive.”
Mitchell added, “We are really aiming to take both games here. I think that if we can win two games at home, it puts a lot of pressure on them going back home.”
Trenton’s offense is peaking at the right time but their memorable season has been built on a strong starting rotation and a power-packed bullpen. Mitchell has set his rotation so that he can pitch right hander Ronald Herrera in Game 1. The 21-year-old Herrera was the teams leader in wins (10), innings (137.0) and was named as the team’s ACE Hardware Pitcher of the Year. Typically, splits do not always give an accurate depiction, but in the case of Herrera, he has been somewhat of a Jeckyl/Hyde between his home and road starts.
In 11 starts in Trenton, Herrera has gone 7-2 with a 1.87 ERA. On the opposite end of the spectrum, he has gone 3-5 with a 5.71 ERA in 12 starts on the road. It is important for Trenton to set the tone in the series opener.
In Game 2, Mitchell will hand the ball to Will Carter, who made just eight starts in Double-A after being promoted to Trenton on July 25. The 23-year-old righty has showcased a plus fastball but has struggled to command the strike-zone with his breaking pitches since coming up from Tampa.
He is allowing a hit per inning (43/43) and will need to hit his spots against an order that feasts on hanging breaking balls. An advantage that Carter has in this match-up is that he has never faced Reading and with the right game plan, he has the plus-stuff that could keep their potent offense off balance. I think game two is the most vital in the series.
Bobby Mitchell has not yet officially named a starter for game 3, but admitted that it was likely that Justus Sheffield would toe the rubber as the series shifted to Reading. Arguably the top-pithing prospect in the Yankees system after they acquired him from Cleveland in the Andrew Miller trade, Sheffield made his Double-A debut against Reading last Friday and was impressive in his four innings of work. The 20-year-old southpaw struck-out nine and allowed just two hits against the Phils that night.
With only one career start in the upper levels under his belt, Trenton has faith that their flame throwing lefty has the potential to once again stifle the Reading offense. Lefty Caleb Smith and righty Kyle Haynes are slated to pitch in Games 4 and 5 with lefty Dan Camarena promoted to Triple-A with righty Eric Ruth Tuesday.
Trenton is hoping to get length out of their starters so that they can turn the ball over to their bullpen; a unit that has done a great job of closing out games all season long.
Mitchell has a slew of arms that he can turn to in the back-end of his bullpen led by Tyler Jones, J.P. Feyereisen, and Travis Hissong . James Reeves and Matt Marsh are also available out of the bullpen after coming up from Tampa last week. Trenton has a considerable amount of options to turn to in the late stages of these games.
Offensively, Trenton has been fueled by centerfielder Dustin Fowler, who has been the team’s most potent hitter and has had one of the best seasons in team history. The 21-year-old Fowler has hit .281 with 152 hits, which was second best in the league. He also belted 12 homers and drove in 88 runs, while adding 30 doubles and setting a single-season franchise record for triples with 15. Fowler is also a threat on the bases, having swiped 25 bases.
Entering play Wednesday night, nobody in the Thunder line-up right now is hotter than Dante Bichette Jr. Considered an afterthought for most of the season, Bichette finished his season with a flourish by hitting .308 while belting 5 homers and driving in 11 over his last 10 games of action. Outfielder Billy McKinney and third baseman Miguel Andujar are also both hitting over .300 in their last 10 games and Mitchell hopes that they all remain hot entering postseason play.
Shortstop Tyler Wade is the most vital player in this series for Trenton. After being named an Eastern League All-Star in mid-July, Wade has slumped and hit just .248 and more recently has hit just .122 in his last 10 games. As the teams table setter in the leadoff spot,
Wade swiped 27 bases and scored 90 runs during the season. It will be crucial for Wade to snap out of his funk and put pressure on Reading with guys like Fowler, Mike Ford and Andujar following him in the lineup.
Game 1: Wednesday, Reading at Thunder, 7 p.m.
Game 2: Thursday, Reading at Thunder, 7 p.m.
Game 3: Friday, Thunder at Reading, 7:05 p.m.
Game 4: Saturday, Thunder at Reading, 7:05 p.m. (if necessary)
Game 5: Sunday, Thunder at Reading, 6:05 p.m. (if necessary)