Eastern League Finals preview

Harrisburg seeks to end 13-year championship drought

By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com | September 10, 2013 6:46 AM

Trenton (74-67, Eastern Division runner-up) vs.
Harrisburg (77-65, Western Division Champions)

How they got here: The Binghamton Mets finished 2013 with the best record in the Eastern Division, but no matter: Trenton swept right past them in the semifinals. Meanwhile, Harrisburg solidified their Western Division credentials by defeating Erie in four games.

Harrisburg won the season series, 5-4

Game 1 at Trenton, Sept. 10, 7:05 p.m. ET  Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 2 at Trenton, Sept. 11, 7:05 p.m. ET  Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 3 at Harrisburg, Sept. 12, 7:00 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 4 at Harrisburg (if necessary), Sept. 13, 7:00 p.m. ET  Watch on MiLB.TV
Game 5 at Harrisburg (if necessary), Sept. 14, 7:00 p.m. ET Watch on MiLB.TV

The best-of-5 Eastern League Finals kick off Tuesday, with the Eastern Division champion Trenton Thunder taking on Western Division victors the Harrisburg Senators. The Thunder, making their second consecutive appearance in the finals, won back-to-back league titles in 2007 and 2008. The Senators, however, are in the midst of a substantially longer championship drought.

Harrisburg last won it all in 1999, under circumstances that, quite literally, could not have possibly been any more dramatic. In the book One Patch of Grass, which details the history of professional baseball in Pennsylvania's capital city, author Andrew Linker calls the Senators' win over the Norwich Navigators in do-or-die Game 5 Harrisburg's "quintessential" sporting moment. In fact, he goes much further than that, stating that the hit that ended the series in the Senators' favor was "arguably the greatest homer hit at any level." Strong words, but the circumstances back up Linker's seemingly hyperbolic sentiment.

The situation: Bottom of the ninth, bases loaded, two outs, full count and the home team down by three runs in a winner-take-all ballgame.

The result: Grand slam.

This momentous blast -- which occurred at 9:45 p.m. on September 19, 1999 -- came off of the bat of Milton Bradley, who deposited Joe Lisio's pitch over the fence in right-center field. Disbelief soon gave way to mass hysteria, as Bradley's "ultimate" grand slam had given the Senators a most improbable 12-11 victory in front of 3,171 fans on a wet, foggy and altogether surreal night at Riverside Stadium. That year marked the team's fourth consecutive Eastern League championship, a run of brilliance that can largely be attributed to a perpetually stacked Montreal Expos farm system that included the likes of Vlad Guerrero, Jose Vidro, Brad Fullmer and, of course, Bradley himself.

Bradley went on to a checkered Major League career, in which his prodigious talent was often overshadowed by hot-tempered on-field meltdowns. His 1999 season with the Senators was not without incident, and Linker accounts, among other occurrences, a Bradley-instigated bench-clearing brawl that ended with him receiving a suspension for spitting gum in the face of the home plate umpire. But in Harrisburg such histrionics have long faded from memory. What hasn't, however, is "the slam."

"You want to clear your head of any distractions and just go off instincts," said Bradley of his iconic moment, as quoted in One Patch of Grass. "My instinct was to react to the fastball in; anything else, just work with it."

An inside fastball was what he got.

"When I let go of the pitch I knew it was a mistake," said Lisio, who led the Eastern League with 33 saves that season. "I just missed my spot."

The combination of Bradley's instinct and Lisio's inaccuracy resulted in a once-in-a-lifetime baseball moment, one that set the gold standard for Eastern League playoff drama.

"You know, it's like when you're playing Wiffle Ball in the backyard when you're a kid," said Senators manager Doug Sisson during the euphoric postgame celebration. "This is how you play every day with your buddies: 'It's a 3-2 count, two outs, bottom of the ninth, down by three.' And then you hit a grand slam to win it. Milton just made a dream come true."

Pitching matchups

Game 1: Nik Turley (Trenton) vs. Blake Treinen (Harrisburg)
Game 2: Bryan Mitchell (Trenton) vs. A.J. Cole (Harrisburg)
Game 3: Shane Green (Trenton) vs. TBA
Game 4: Mikey O'Brien (Trenton) vs. TBA
Game 5: TBA vs. TBA

In brief

Pitching rules: Trenton's .687 OPS was the worst in the Eastern League, and Harrisburg's .696 was the second worst. That these two teams are meeting in the Finals is, of course, a testament to their pitching staffs. Among the many standouts is Harrisburg's Game 2 starter A.J. Cole, who posted a mediocre 4.25 ERA with Class A Advanced Potomac but then went 4-2 with a sparkling 2.18 mark after making the leap to Double-A. And then there's Nik Turley, Trenton's starter in Game 1, who has served as the anchor of the team's rotation. Turley, who turns 24 on Wednesday, led the Thunder in wins (11), games started (26), innings pitched (139) and strikeouts (137).

Win it for Chase: If the Thunder can win it all then, their efforts will be dedicated to one of the most influential and beloved individuals in team history: Chase the bat dog, who retrieved bats (and delivered water to umpires) at Trenton's Arm & Hammer Ballpark during each of the past 10 seasons. The ebullient golden retriever died in July at the age of 13, just three days after the Thunder held an in-game retirement party in his honor.

Been a while: The last time that Trenton and Harrisburg met in the postseason was 1996, when the Senators defeated the Thunder in the South Divisional Playoff en route to advancing to the first of what would be four consecutive Finals appearances. Left-hander Tommy Phelps won Game 3 of that series and went on to pitch for the Senators in each of the next three seasons as well, but these days his allegiances have done a 180. Phelps now serves as Trenton's pitching coach.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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