After chasing the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in the standings for a large majority of the summer, the Thunder won 11 of their final 13 games to catch them and hoist their second consecutive eastern division crown. While finishing at the top of the division is rewarding, it poses somewhat of a disadvantage to the winner, because they are forced to open the postseason on the road. When the playoffs open on Wednesday night in the best-of-five series beginning at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium in Manchester, New Hampshire, the Thunder will embark on their third consecutive chase for a championship trophy.
Manager Jay Bell guided the Thunder to a 79-61 mark, which was the most victories in the Eastern League in 2018. It took a roster of 74 different players spanning 215 roster moves to get the job done.
Trenton defeated the Fisher Cats in the head-to-head season series, nine games to eight, after taking three of the final four meetings against their division rival in mid-August. It is a big-ticket match-up that will pit the leagues best offensive unit in New Hampshire against the league’s best pitching staff in Trenton.
The Fisher Cats are propelled by league MVP Cavan Biggio, who slashed .252/.388/.499 with 26 homers and 99 RBI in his first year at the Double-A level. While the games top-prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr. is no longer with the team, the speedy Bo Bichette remains a fixture at the top of Manager John Schneider’s lineup. Also in his first season in the upper-levels, Bichette swiped 32 bases and slashed .286/.343/.453 with 11 homers and 74 RBI to go along with a league-high 43 doubles. If that were not enough to deal with, New Hampshire is also equipped the EL batting champion, Harold Ramirez. The 23-year old right fielder led the EL with a .320 mark and added 11 homers and 70 RBI of his own.
“Through that lineup, there are some guys that can do some damage,” Bell said. “There is no doubt that Bo is probably the guy that you contain. Cavan has done a fantastic job.”
Not only did both clubs square off 17 times this season, but many of the key cogs for both squads have a great deal of familiarity with each other. It was the Blue Jays High-A affiliate in Dunedin who defeated Bell and the Tampa Yankees in the Florida State League northern division championship in 2017. This will be a shot at redemption for many in the Thunder clubhouse.
“There are guys all through that lineup that do a great job. Max Pentecost, (Connor) Panas, (Harold) Ramirez has been really good this year. (Juan) Kelly is a guy you have to pay attention to. He has had some good at-bats, and has done some things. We are real familiar with those guys. Most of the guys were in Dunedin last year, so I have two years of familiarity with them.”
Meanwhile, the Thunder pitching staff was top in the Eastern League for the third consecutive season, posting a 3.25 team ERA. As a unit, Trenton hurlers allowed the fewest hits (1030), runs (513), homers (86) while posting the most strikeouts (1228) and the best WHIP (1.23).
“Pitch and play good defense,” those are the keys to winning the opening series according to Bell. “Pitch well and play good defense. It goes back to what we have talked about early in the season. To win a championship, you have to pitch well, and you have to play good defense.”
Bell will hand the ball to 24-year old right-hander Brian Keller, who led the Thunder in wins with a 10-9 mark to go along with a 3.74 ERA in his first season in Double-A. Opposing Keller on Wednesday night will be right-hander T.J. Zeuch. who went 9-5 with a 3.08 ERA in 21 starts for New Hampshire. Zeuch was the Blue Jays’ first-round draft selection in 2016 out of Pittsburgh.
Keller has faced New Hampshire four times this season and he is 0-3 with a no-decision in those starts. He surrendered 15 earned runs over 24 1/3 innings. In his last start against them on August 19, Keller allowed just two earned over seven frames. It was Keller who was knocked out by Dunedin in that painful FSL northern division series last September.
In game two, which is slated for Thursday night, 23-year old Nick Green will toe the rubber for Trenton after making just three starts for the Thunder late in the season. In 17 1/3 innings, Green was 1-2 with a 3.63 ERA while holding Eastern League opposition to a .200 batting average. In 23 starts on the season, the right-hander has gone 8-7 with a 3.23 ERA in 23 starts between Tampa and Trenton. Green will be opposed by Hector Perez, who came over to Toronto in July from the Astros as part of the package that sent closer Roberto Osuna to Houston. The 22-year old righty went 1-3 with a 3.86 ERA in six starts for New Hampshire – he has fanned 133 batters in 115 innings this season.
The series will shift back to ARM & HAMMER Park in Trenton on Friday night when 22-year old Nick Nelson will take the ball against tight-handed Jordan Romano. Nelson spent most of the season with High-A Tampa but has had three up-and-down outings since being promoted to Trenton last month. In his last on August 31, Nelson failed to get out of the first inning against Reading. Overall, he has gone 8-6 with a 3.55 ERA in 121 2/3 innings this season.
If necessary, right-hander Trevor Stephan is taking the ball for Trenton on Saturday night against Jon Harris of New Hampshire.
The 22-year old Stephan made it all the way to Double-A in his first full-season in pro-ball after the Yankees selected him out of Arkansas in the third round last summer. Stephan has posted a 3-8 mark with a 4.54 ERA for the Thunder since his promotion from Tampa in May. In his last three starts, he has allowed just two earned runs on eight hits with 19 strikeouts in 16 1/3 innings.
Should the series boil down to a pivotal game five on Sunday afternoon, Bell will hand the ball to 19-year old top-prospect Deivi Garcia, who was sensational in his lone start at Double-A last Sunday. The Dominican-native tossed five no-hit innings against Reading with seven strikeouts. Despite his age, Garcia has a strikeout-to-walk ratio comparable to a seasoned veteran – he has fanned 251 and walked just 71 in 182 1/3 career frames. New Hampshire has yet to announce their potential game five starter.
The victor of this tough series will have a date with the winner of the western division series between Altoona and Akron, both of whom have swept the Thunder in the championship series over the last two seasons.
Notes: The Thunder released the postseason roster for the opening series and highly touted hurler Albert Abreu is indeed on the roster despite not being listed as a starter against New Hampshire.
Outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams was added to the roster from Tampa after blasting a system-best 22 homers this season. The 23-year old was a fifth-round draft selection out of South Carolina in 2016.