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Matt LaPorta will definitely be in Akron on Tuesday night when the Aeros square off with Trenton in the opening game of the Eastern League Championship Series. The big question is whether or not Travis Hafner will be there with him.
If Hafner is in the Akron lineup, the Thunder might indeed experience some thunder. The LaPorta-Hafner combination proved formidable in the Aeros' opening-round series against Bowie. The duo combined for eight hits and five homers. The twosome also accounted for 12 of the 18 RBIs with which Akron was credited.
Hafner is in Akron rehabbing a right shoulder strain that has kept him on the shelf since the end of May. The nagging injury, which some believe is a partial tear rather than simply inflammation, had sapped Hafner's strength and eventually forced him onto the disabled list. He began his rehab assignment with Buffalo on Aug. 18 and is just getting back into the routine of playing every day.
While Akron/Cleveland officials didn't confirm anything following Saturday's series-clinching victory and may not do so until Tuesday, Hafner likely would only play in the first two games of the series at Canal Park if he plays at all. It's unlikely that Cleveland would have him travel to New Jersey for Games 3, 4 and 5. Then again, if he and LaPorta perform in the first two games the way they did against Bowie it may not matter what happens in Trenton.
Trenton wasn't damaged by the long ball in its opening-round sweep of Portland. The Thunder only allowed two homers, both of which were surrendered by Jason Jones. The SeaDogs only scored eight runs in the three games and Jones allowed four of them. It will be interesting to see how the LaPorta-Hafner pairing fares, at least through the first two games.
LaPorta had been hitting .222 with Akron after the trade that brought him over from the Milwaukee system at the end of July. He then went to Beijing with the U.S. Olympic team and since his return, has gone 9-for-21, including the playoffs. Hafner, including his rehab time at Buffalo, is 9-for-28.
Trenton Thunder (86-54) vs. Akron Aeros (80-62)
Trenton, which is making its fourth consecutive playoff appearance, is the defending league champion. It swept Portland to reach the league Finals. The Thunder also captured its second consecutive Northern Division title this season. Prior to its current run, Trenton made the playoffs on three other occasions (1995-'96, '99) when it was a Boston affiliate, going 3-9 in postseason action during that stretch. The Aeros, meanwhile, have been a staple in the Eastern League playoffs for the better part of the past two decades. This season marks the fourth consecutive year and the sixth time in seven seasons in which Akron has reached the postseason. Akron has reached the Finals in each of the past three seasons, winning the title in 2005. The Aeros, who have reached the playoffs 12 times since '89, also won the crown in '03.
Trenton won four of the seven games played, including three of five games played in New Jersey in early August. Thunder starters had a 3.48 ERA against Akron, but take away Mike Gardner's seven-run, 2 2/3-inning performance in August and the starting ERA for the defending champs was 1.76. The ERA for Akron's starters was 2.41, though if you remove the nine runs that Ryan Edell allowed in 11 innings, it drops to 0.60.
Edwar Gonzalez hit .389 (7-for-18) for the Thunder with a homer and five RBIs. Chris Malec and P.J. Pilittere combined to hit .302 (13-for-43) with seven RBIs. Austin Jackson hit .154 (4-for-26) with 12 strikeouts. Chase Wright, now in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, didn't allow an earned run over seven innings while scattering six hits in his lone appearance. Zach Kroenke, also in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, didn't give up any runs while earning one save in 4 2/3 innings over three games. ... Scott Lewis, who was called up to Buffalo late in the season, didn't yield an earned run over 7 2/3 innings in his only start against Trenton for the Aeros. He struck out five and didn't walk anyone. Frank Herrmann tossed 7 1/3 shutout innings in his single start. Ryan Goleski hit .462 (6-for-13) with two homers and three RBIs while Brandon Pinckney hit .333 (6-for-18) with a homer and six RBIs. Wes Hodges and Stephen Head combined to hit .170 (8-for-47) with four RBIs.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Trenton: Eric Hacker (7-4, 2.76 in 17 EL starts) pitched the opener against Portland, allowing one run on five hits in 5 2/3 innings, and could start Game 1. Jeff Marquez, 1-1 with a 2.93 ERA in three starts since coming down from the International League, is in line to start Game 2. He allowed three runs on eight hits in five innings against Portland but didn't receive a decision. Pilittere was 4-for-10 against Portland while Colin Curtis went 6-for-12. He had four hits in the clincher, including a triple and a double, scored twice and drove in a pair. Austin Jackson was 1-for-11, but his one hit was a homer. He drove in three runs.
Akron: Matt LaPorta was every bit the player the Indians expected him to be in the opening round against Bowie, going 6-for-13 with three homers and five RBIs. Rehabbing Travis Hafner was 2-for-6 with two homers and seven RBIs and will likely play Akron's home games in the finals. Hodges struggled against Bowie, going 3-for-17 with five strikeouts while Head was 3-for-16. That's a combined .182 average. Josh Rodriguez was 6-for-17 with two triples and five runs scored. Catcher Carlos Santana got five at-bats in the four opening-round games, picking up a hit and a walk and scoring a run. Herrmann tossed seven innings of three-hit ball in the clincher, allowing only one run. Ryan Edell also won his start, tossing 7 1/3 innings of four-hit ball. Reid Santos pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings over two appearances, striking out three.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.