The Thunder spent the 2017 campaign shattering records and setting milestones en route to the best season in franchise history. A club best 92-win season, a division title, a Manager of the Year award for Bobby Mitchell to go along with a team record for ERA (2.83) and shutouts (20) seemed to be the perfect precursor for a team destined to win a championship. The Altoona Curve made certain that Trenton would come out on the wrong side of history on Thursday night as they defeated the Thunder by a score of 4-2 to complete the series sweep to earn the Eastern League title.
One year after the Akron Rubber Ducks swept the Thunder in the ELCS, they were again denied one final champagne shower despite winning a league best 179 games over that juncture. Coincidentally, it was a majority of the players on both of these rosters who squared off in the Florida State League championship last season, when the Bradenton Marauders defeated the Tampa Yankees. While the Baby Bombers were shunned at a chance for redemption, the Curve became the first team since the 2013 Thunder to sweep their way through all six postseason contests; they yielded just ten runs over that span.
“We haven’t been able to finish the last two years, which has been very disappointing,” said Mitchell. “I thought going into the playoffs, record wise and obviously throughout the season, we had the better team but we just didn’t perform like it.”
Already trailing 0-2 with the series shifting to Peoples Natural Gas Field, Trenton was tasked with trying to spark a stagnant offense against the Pirates top-prospect according to Baseball America, right-handed pitcher Mitch Keller, in game three. The 21-year old Keller tossed a complete game one-hit shutout and faced the minimum in a dominant game one victory over Bowie in the ELDS his last time out.
Having not held a single lead in the first two games of the series, the Thunder were finally able to score first and put some early pressure on Keller. A second inning RBI groundout by Zack Zehner (0-for-4) and an RBI single by Rashad Crawford (2-for-3) staked Trenton to a 2-0 advantage.
Thunder starter Will Carter navigated his way smoothly through four innings before he lost his command and ultimately the lead in the fifth. The right-hander surrendered a pair of singles and a pair of walks, one of them to Jerrick Suiter with the bases loaded to put the Curve within a run at 2-1. Catcher Jin-De Jhang then crushed a bases clearing triple to right field to put Altoona ahead 4-2.
Now with a lead in his back pocket, Keller surrendered a one out single to Ryan McBroom in the seventh inning to conclude a streak of 13 consecutive batters retired that had gone back to Crawford’s second inning RBI single.
The Thunder had struggled all series long to capitalize on scoring opportunities and the eighth inning on Thursday proved to be a microcosm of their troubles. With just six outs left to extend their season at least one more day, Crawford led off with a single and Diaz drew a walk before Keller was able to freeze Jeff Hendrix looking at a breaking ball.
Altoona Manager Michael Ryan pulled Keller at the 102-pitch mark in favor of reliever Johnny Hellweg after he allowed just two runs on four hits with seven strikeouts in 7 1/3 stellar innings.
The 28-year old Hellweg could not seem to find the strike zone and immediately walks Thairo Estrada on four pitches to loaded the bases with just one out. With the game and possibly the series hanging in the balance, Hellweg was able to jam Billy Fleming on a soft check swing tapper and generated an inning ending groundout off of the bat of Dante Bichette Jr.
Trenton went just 4-for-21 with runners in scoring position and drew only four walks in the series while Altoona was able to muster out 12 free passes against Thunder pitching.
Altoona closer Tate Scioneaux struck out the side in order in the ninth inning to give the Curve their first Eastern League Championship since 2010 and the second in their 19 year existence; both have come at the expense of the Thunder, who fell to 3-4 all-time in championship series play.
Following the game, Keller was named MVP of the playoffs – in two starts he tossed 16 1/3 innings and allowed two runs on five hits with two walks and 12 strikeouts.
“It was a good year, but I would give all of those records away to win a championship and bring a championship to Trenton,” admitted Mitchell. “That’s why I think that it is disappointing; we had a good year, but we didn’t have a great year because we didn’t finish it.”