TRENTON – The 2017 Thunder have not played a must-win game all season long. The western division champion Altoona Curve have now backed them into that very situation after taking a commanding 2-0 series advantage with a 4-2 victory at ARM & HAMMER Park on Wednesday night.
A suddenly stagnant Thunder offense has not led at any point over the first two games of this decisive series and cumulatively have gone 3-for-15 with runners in scoring position and have left 21 runners on base. Altoona starter J.T. Brubaker dazzled for eight innings, allowing just two earned runs over eight strong innings.
“We still aren’t hitting with men on base,” said Thunder Manager Bobby Mitchell. “If we could just get a lead, we could maybe put some pressure on them, but we haven’t had a lead yet in any game. We get men on base with two outs but we can’t get anybody in.”
Much like game one on Tuesday night, both Altoona and Trenton matched zeroes for the first four innings. Thunder starter Justus Sheffield, fresh off of a combined no-hitter with Taylor Widener in the ELDS, had surrendered just two hits over the first four innings before the Curve were able to breakthrough in the fifth.
Catcher Jin-De Jhang led off with a single to start the frame and was quickly advanced into scoring position by a sac-bunt by third baseman Wyatt Mathieson. Left fielder Jordan George then singled to center fielder Rashad Crawford, but he could not cleanly field the ball and then swatted it away with his glove which allowed Jhang to score.
“We made mistakes defensively, we made an error in center field,” Mitchell said. ‘The guy wasn’t going to score, who knows what would have happened if we field the ball in center field.”
At the 68-pitch mark, Mitchell pulled Sheffield in favor of Widener. The 21-year old southpaw allowed just four hits and two earned runs with six strike outs over his 4 1/3 innings of work.
“Obviously, we know that we are the better team,” Sheffield said following Wednesday’s game. “They know that we are the better team, but it just comes down to getting it done in the long run, especially in these five game series.”
Sheffield added, “I felt really good tonight. I felt like I was locating well with the fastball and all of my pitches. Those pitch counts coming back from injury kind of stink, but I just had a little bit of bad luck at the end.”
After an impressive four-inning hitless debut on Friday night, the 22-year old Widener surrendered two singles, hit a batter, and issued two walks, one with the bases loaded, to the first five batters that he faced. The rocky relief appearance by the right-hander allowed Altoona to take a 3-0 lead.
Making his Double-A debut after being added to the active roster on Tuesday, left fielder Estevan Florial smoked a single off of first baseman Jerrick Suiter‘s glove to pick-up his first Eastern League hit. A single by catcher Francisco Diaz moved Florial over to third base and a Jeff Hendrix groundout brought him around to score to cut the Altoona advantage to 3-1.
Altoona tacked on an insurance run in the sixth inning with a two-out RBI single from outfielder Elvis Escobar; a throw by Crawford in center field beat Mathieson to the plate and kept the curve from scoring a fifth run.
Shortstop Thairo Estrada delivered an RBI single in the eighth inning to put the Thunder back within two runs at 4-2. Suddenly down to their final three outs, Florial came to the plate as the tying with two outs and a runner on first base in the bottom of the ninth inning, but right-handed reliever Yeudy Garcia was able to strike him out and preserve a 4-2 Altoona victory.
The Thunder will will to avoid getting swept in the ELCS for the second consecutive season and things do not figure to get any easier for the Thunder as the series now shifts to Peoples Natural Gas Field in Altoona where they will have the daunting task of keeping their season alive against the Pirates top overall prospect in Mitch Keller. The 21-year old right-hander is coming off a complete-game shutout victory in which he faced the minimum against Bowie last Thursday.
“If anybody is giving up, let me know and I will get somebody else in there for them,” Mitchell said. “We are not going to give up. We are going to go over there and play one inning, one at-bat, one pitch at a time. We have won three games before. The tendency right now is to give up, and we are not going to do that.”
Mitchell added,” We have got our work cut out for us, but were are not just going to go over there and fold it in.
The Thunder will counter with right-hander Will Carter in game three. The 24-year old Carter started the series clinching game of the ELDS against Binghamton on Saturday and allowed just one earned run over 6 1/3 innings en route to victory.