READING, PA – After chasing the Reading Fightin’ Phils in the standings all season long, the Thunder finally caught them in the postseason when it mattered the most. Trenton advanced to the Eastern League Championship Series for the sixth time in franchise history with a hard-fought 3-2 victory Saturday night at FirstEnergy Park.
“We knew that we played them tough during the season, whether we won or lost,” admitted Thunder manager Bobby Mitchell. “We thought that if we took the two games at our park, it would make our job here a lot easier. We really put all of our cards on the table tonight to win this game.”
In his first year with the organization, Mitchell guided his team to 87 wins, the second-most in franchise history and the most since the Thunder became a Yankees affiliate in 2003.
The Phils staved off elimination from the postseason with a 13-5 thumping of the Thunder Friday night to cut the series deficit to 2-1. Mitchell summoned southpaw Caleb Smith (3-5 3.96 ERA) to get the club back on the winning track and ultimately advance to the Eastern League Championship Series.
Smith made his last regular-season start against Reading on Sept. 4 and went six innings; allowing just one hit while striking out eight to earn the victory.
After falling behind early in Game 3, it was crucial for Trenton to strike first and play with a lead to keep the pressure on Reading. Dante Bichette Jr. had been the hottest hitter in the Thunder lineup in the series (4-for-9 with 4 RBI), and he continued his scalding stretch by blasting a long solo homer over the left-field fence to put Trenton ahead, 1-0.
“I knew that we needed to win tonight,” explained Bichette. “I don’t think that we have beat them at their field here yet this year, and we knew that it was going to be a dogfight going into it.”
Reading did not trail for long, though, they would strike Smith with his lone blemish on the evening on an RBI-single by Jake Fox to even the score at 1-1.
Before the series began, the Thunder staff identified Tyler Wade and his presence on base as being a major key to success. In the top-half of the third inning, Trenton began a two-out rally that was initiated by Wade drawing a four-pitch walk. Dustin Fowler then followed by legging out an infield hit to put two runners aboard. Third baseman Miguel Andujar grounded to third, but a throwing error by Harold Martinez allowed Wade to score to put Trenton ahead, 2-1.
A well-struck RBI-double to the left-field wall by Andujar in the top of the fifth would allow Trenton to pad their lead at 3-1.
Meanwhile, Smith settled in and navigated his way through five frames. He allowed the lone run on six hits while striking out eight batters on 95 pitches. Right-hander Travis Hissong came on in relief of Smith and pitched a clean sixth inning.
“I can’t say enough about Caleb’s start,” said Mitchell. “He hasn’t been a starter the whole season; he has just been off-and-on and back-and-forth and it was pretty amazing at what he did.”
Phils shortstop KC Serna led off the seventh inning for Reading with a double off of Hissong down the left field line. Center fielder Roman Quinn would advance him over to third on a sacrifice bunt and he would come home to score on an RBI-groundout to second by Christian Marrero to cut the Thunder advantage to 3-2.
With two outs and the dangerous heart of the Reading order looming, Mitchell came to the mound to pull Hissong in favor of flame-thrower J.P. Feyereisen with the intent of keeping him in for the eighth inning as well. The right-hander would come on and strikeout catcher Jorge Alfaro on a 96 MPH fastball to end the seventh.
Reading was due to send up 101 homers worth of offense in the eighth inning and Feyereisen discarded of Dylan Cozens, Rhys Hoskins and Fox on 11 pitches to put Reading on the brink of defeat.
“J.P. should be the MVP; hopefully he is,” admitted Mitchell. “He pitched unbelievably and faced the heart of their lineup and did an amazing job along with Jones.”
Tyler Jones came on and slammed the door in the ninth inning to punch Trenton’s ticket to the ELCS. The team stormed the mound and rallied together with a series of hugs and handshakes before spraying each other with champagne in the visiting clubhouse. A large group of the team celebrated by jumping into the swimming pool just beyond the fence in right field.
Trenton will now sit back and await the winner of the Western Division Series between Altoona and Akron. The RubberDucks hold a 2-1 series advantage as game 4 on Saturday night was postponed due to rain.
“This is extremely fulfilling,” said Wade. “It’s kind of a surreal moment right now, it hasn’t really kicked in yet. We are playing great baseball right now and we’re rallying together and I am excited for the next five games.”