After tallying an Eastern League best 92 wins, the Trenton Thunder are headed back to the Eastern League Championship series with a three games to one ELDS victory over the Binghamton Rumble Ponies on Saturday Sept. 9.
This marks the seventh time in the past eleven years the Yankees minor league affiliate has made the Eastern League Championship, but the Thunder did not run through the ELDS in 2017 without making some runs at Eastern League playoff history.
The Thunder put together three straight wins after dropping the first game of the series in Binghamton 4-1 on Wednesday Sept. 6. Against Eastern League pitcher of the year Corey Oswalt, the Thunder’s only run of the game came off a wild pitch in the first inning.
But was a different story for the Thunder offense the following night. Two the Thunder put up nine runs off of eighteen hits for a 9-6 victory and even up the series at a game a piece.
Trenton Thunder Manager Bobby Mitchell told The VOICE, “If we would have lost [that game] we would have been in trouble.”
At the center of the Thunder’s offensive efficiency in game two was 21 year old Venezuelan infielder Thairo Estrada, who became the third player in Thunder history to hit for the cycle and the first to do so in the postseason. Estrada accounted for five of Trenton’s nine runs with three RBIs and two runs scored.
Third baseman Dante Bichette Jr. said, “I knew the way that we were swinging the bats we were gonna put up a lot of runs so I wasn’t really worried about yesterday.”
The Thunder left Binghamton with a split and brought the series back to Arm & Hammer Park. Left handed pitcher and top Yankees prospect Justus Sheffield took the mound for the Thunder in game three in only his third start since coming off the disabled list with an oblique strain.
The only other pitcher the Thunder used that night was reliever Taylor Widener who made his debut for the Thunder in unusual circumstances. Widener, who had spent the entire 2017 season in Tampa Bay with the Yankees single A affiliate, came up with the rest of the Tampa players after being forced to evacuate due to Hurricane Irma.
“It was pretty hectic just leaving kind of last minute. There weren’t any flights out of Tampa so I had to drive to Atlanta.” Widener told The VOICE, continuing: “After a nine and a half hour drive with traffic, I got two hours of sleep and flew up here the next day.”
Sheffield and Widener went on to throw a combined no hitter, only the third in Eastern League playoff history.
“Obviously the pitching was unbelievable,” manager Mitchell said. He added: “Widener who we’d never seen before, where’s he been?… It’s kind of crazy that he can do so well his first time out.”
But the historical prominence of the no hitter did not come without controversy. A hit was officially ruled for Binghamton when catcher Tomas Nido hit a ground ball to shortstop Thairo Estrada.
It was not until the seventh inning that the ruling was officially changed to an error, allowing both teams to play under the impression that a no hitter was not at stake for the majority of the game. Sheffield who was originally credited with giving up the hit to Nido, doesn’t believe that the ruling had any effect on his or the team’s performance.
“I was locked in the whole game because this is payoffs. No hitter or one hitter, I mean, you know, I’m still locked in cheering on my team out there.” Sheffield said.
Widener, relieving Sheffield, was not even aware that he was part of a no hitter until after the game was over. After recording the final out of the game he was confusingly mobbed on the mound by his teammates ignorant to his feat.
“After the game, honestly I had no clue what was going on, or why everyone was so excited.” Widener said.
The Thunder scored in the first inning of each game of the series and their first inning run in game three made the difference. That came off the bat of Yankees rookie and top 30 prospect in baseball Clint Frazier, whose double in the first inning scored center fielder Jeff Hendrix, giving the Thunder all the offense they needed for the win.
Frazier, on a rehab stint with the Thunder after a left oblique strain, was playing his first game in Trenton as a member of the Thunder. According to Frazier, taking part in the historic series was comparable to his experience in the majors as part of the Yankees earlier in the season.
“You don’t expect to have back to back games where someone hits the cycle, and then we throw a no hitter so it’s really cool. It’s a testament to what each person on this team is capable of.” Frazier said.
He went on to say: “I think that last at bat I had where guys were on first and second, it felt like I was in the big leagues for a second. The crowd was getting into it, the pitcher was giving me everything he had…It was fun for me tonight. I’m not hitting the way that I want, but that’s not the reason why I’m here. I’m just here to try to get my feet back under me, and I’m slowly starting to feel like myself again, so it’s fun to be a part of the team with these guys right now.”
Now with a two games to one advantage in the series the Thunder parlayed the momentum of their historic wins into their fourth and final game of the series on Saturday Sept. 9. The Thunder won game five 9-1 and clinched the ELDS
Against Binghamton’s 29 year old knuckleballer Mickey Jannis, the Thunder scored their five runs in the first three innings. They tallied just two hits before Jannis was pulled from the game.
Third baseman Dante Bichette Jr. told The VOICE: “Drawing the first blood is very important I think, and that’s what our team can do…If our offense hits we will win games.”
The Thunder scored their nine runs in the first five innings, aided by a sequence of errors, wild pitches, and passed balls by the Binghamton defense. Trenton right hander Will Carter pitched through six and a third innings giving up three hits, one run and striking out five.
“In a playoff game you always need a little more, but every time I go out there I’m gonna give it everything I have,” Carter said.
Clinching the series in game four gave the Thunder the added benefit of an extra day of rest before battling the Altoona Curve for the start of the Eastern League Championship series. Altoona will be heading into the series on a three game win streak of their own after sweeping the Bowie Baysox three games to none.
The Thunder seek their fourth championship title against Altoona in a best of five series spanning from Tuesday Sept. 12 to Saturday Sept. 16.