Portland vs. Trenton
REGULAR SEASON SERIES
Trenton captured the season series, 9-7, but judging from the way the year started, it didn't look like the Thunder would pose much of a threat. Portland swept a four-game set at Waterfront Park in April but Trenton won nine of the remaining 12 contests, including sweeping a four-game set in Maine in late August.
Uber prospects Anibal Sanchez and Jon Lester have combined to go 1-2 with a 4.64 ERA in five starts against the Thunder. Kason Gabbard has had the most success against Trenton, going 2-1 with a 1.56 ERA in three starts. Hanley Ramirez, who has clearly outgrown the Eastern League, hit .400 (22-for-55) in 14 games against Trenton with a homer, 12 RBIs and six steals.
Thunder ace Matt DeSalvo was 0-1 with a 4.79 ERA in four starts. Jeffrey Karstens has been brilliant, going 3-0 with a 0.82 ERA in three starts. Closer Justin Pope has appeared in seven games and picked up a pair of saves and a win but has a 4.82 ERA in 9 1/3 innings.
ON THE MOUND
Lester (11-6, 2.61) was chosen as the league's Pitcher of the Year, along with since-promoted Erie's Joel Zumaya, by the Eastern League's Baseball Writers' Association. He won his final two starts of the regular season and didn't allow a run in 13 innings and will get the nod in the opener. Lester also led the league with his franchise-record ERA, in strikeouts (163), was tied for the lead in complete games (three) and was third in victories. Sanchez, who was 3-5 with a 3.45 ERA in 11 starts after coming up from Class A Wilmington, had some soreness in his forearm and elbow during Portland's last home game of the regular season but appears fine now and will start Game 2. He is 0-4 in his last six starts with a 5.77 ERA over that stretch. Sanchez hasn't gone more than four innings in his last three starts. David Pauley (9-7, 3.81), who made a team-high 27 starts, will get the nod in Game 3. He is 1-3 in his last five starts with a 6.00 ERA. Gabbard (9-11, 4.61) may be in line for a start in Game 4 or 5. Closer Jim Mann has been strong, saving 12 and posting a 1.80 ERA. Portland hurlers combined to throw a league-leading 16 shutouts. First-round pick Craig Hansen hasn't pitched since Aug. 26.
It's no surprise that Karstens (12-11, 4.15), who finished tied for second in the league in victories, will start the opener considering his success against the Sea Dogs. He is 2-0 in his last three starts, fanning 18 and walking only two over that stretch. DeSalvo (9-5, 3.02), who will start Game 2, was third in the league in ERA and strikeouts (151). He's lost only once in eight starts since July 23. Eric Schmitt (1-2, 5.17), who spent half the season at Triple-A Columbus, will get the nod in Game Three. He was a combined 5-4 with a 4.87 ERA in 39 games (11 starts) this season. Pope has adjusted to life as a closer, setting a franchise record with 29 saves, which was also second in the league. He was also tied for second in the league with 57 appearances.
AT THE PLATE
Ramirez is one of the most coveted players in all of the Minor Leagues. This season was proof of that as he put together a well-rounded effort, hitting .271 with six homers, 52 RBIs and 26 steals. He's one of six Sea Dogs with at least 50 RBIs. David Murphy (75) and Jared Sandberg (75) have been responsible for the most production. The Sea Dogs also have three players with 30 or more doubles for the first time in franchise history in Jeremy West (32), Chris Durbin (31) and Brandon Moss (31). Surprisingly, Portland didn't have anyone near the top 10 in hitting an, with a team average of .256, were closer to the bottom of the circuit than the top. In fact, Moss placed second with 87 runs scored, marking the only Sea Dog near the top of the league leaders, proving how balanced this squad is. Matt Van Der Bosch has hit safely in nine of 10 games since joining the team from Wilmington and is second in the organization with 25 steals.
The Thunder offense features Shelley Duncan, who has blitzed Eastern League pitchers to the tune of 34 homers and 92 RBIs. He led the league in homers and finished second in RBIs and in the Player of the Year voting to Binghamton's Mike Jacobs. Duncan has proven he can drive in runs but he's Dave Kingman-like in other ways as well, striking out 140 times (second in the league) and hitting .240. Eric Duncan recently has returned to the lineup after getting hit in the head by a pitch on Aug. 14 against Akron. The former first-round pick was experiencing headaches but resumed playing last week as Trenton pushed to solidify its spot in the postseason. While he has 19 homers and 61 RBIs, he's fanned 136 times and is hitting only .235, forming an all-or-nothing duo with his namesake. Melky Cabrera has spent time in Triple-A Columbus and with the Yankees but had his most success at Trenton, hitting .275 with 10 homers and 60 RBIs. He finished the season on a five-game hitting streak (7-for-21 with two RBIs) and has hits in seven of his last eight games.
POINTS OF INTEREST
While the two parent clubs are mortal enemies, there doesn't seem to be the same contempt between the affiliates. Trenton served as Boston's Eastern League affiliate from 1995 through 2002. Oakland manager Ken Macha piloted the team in 1995-96, reaching the playoffs both years. The Thunder also reached the postseason in 1999, marking the last time the franchise has reached the playoffs. Trenton has never won a playoff series and is 3-9 in postseason action. Nomar Garciaparra shares the Trenton record for most runs in a playoff game with two. Portland, meanwhile, hasn't been in the playoffs since 1997, which marked the second consecutive season the Sea Dogs were defeated by Harrisburg for the title. This year marked the fourth time the Sea Dogs have won the Northern Division crown. The Thunder topped 400,000 fans this season for a Double-A record 11th consecutive year. Their average attendance was 5,815, fourth in the league behind Akron (6,775), Reading (6,701) and Portland (6,290).
SERIES COULD TURN ON...
Pitching: Either starting staff has the potential to spin three consecutive shutouts. If one group gets hot, this one could end quickly, though the Sea Dogs staff is deeper and the team has greater depth.
Prediction: This series will be tight, there's no doubt about that. The Thunder had the edge in the regular season but struggled to clinch a playoff berth. Portland in five.
Akron vs. Altoona
REGULAR SEASON SERIES
Akron was dominant, winning 13 of the 19 meetings between the two teams. Four of the games were postponed in April, two because of snow. The Aeros won three of four games played in June, then eight of nine played between the two clubs in August.
The Aeros will be without several players who contributed to their success against Altoona. Fausto Carmona and Jason Cooper, who went 3-0 in five games against The Curve, are at Triple-A Buffalo while outfielder Franklin Gutierrez was called up by the Tribe from Buffalo on Wednesday. Jason Stanford was 2-0 in two relief appearances against Altoona but he too is now in Buffalo. Former first-round pick Jeremy Sowers is 2-0 with a 2.11 ERA in three starts against the Curve. Ben Francisco drove in 11 and hit .388 for Akron. The Aeros team ERA against Altoona was 3.07 while Altoona's team ERA in the season series was 4.17.
The Curve only hit .219 against Akron with only Rajai Davis having any sustained success. He hit .295 with eight stolen bases and a .386 on-base percentage. Several members of the Curve bullpen proved to be nearly unhittable. Brady Borner, Matthew Capps, Landon Jacobsen, Justin Kaye and Chris Snusz combined for a 0.62 ERA over 29 innings, striking out 26 and walking only eight.
ON THE MOUND
Former first-round pick Jeremy Sowers (5-1, 2.08 in 13 starts) will get the nod in the opener. He is a combined 14-4 with a 2.37 ERA at Kinston, Akron and Buffalo. Sowers won his only decision at Triple-A last week, allowing one run over 5 2/3 innings before coming back to Akron. He has 149 strikeouts and only 39 walks in 164 1/3 innings this season. He hasn't started for Akron since Aug. 27 but has won five consecutive decisions for the Aeros after dropping his June 22 debut. He hasn't allowed more than three earned runs in any game since that debut, surrendering no earned runs four times. Brian Slocum, a second-round pick in 2002, is 7-5 with a 4.40 ERA and will start Game 2. He is 2-0 in his last eight appearances (six starts), not having lost since June 23. His ERA in his last six outings is 2.08. Rafael Perez (4-3, 1.76) will start Game Three. Overall, he is 12-8 with a 2.62 ERA splitting time between Class A Kinston and Akron. He's 4-3 with a 1.89 ERA in eight starts for the Aeros. Jake Dittler (10-9, 3.64) and Tom Mastny (1-1, 2.18) are slated for Games 4 and 5 if needed. The Aeros have a closer by committee, featuring Edward Mujica (2-1, 2.88, 10 saves), Todd Pennington (2-1, 4.19, nine saves) and Chris Cooper (4-1, 2.08, eight saves). Akron led the league with a 3.40 ERA, though only one pitcher finished in the top 10 individually.
Eddie Candelario (3-4, 3.12) will start the opener though he is 0-2 in his last seven starts and hasn't won since July 26 and his ERA over that stretch is 2.90. Matt Peterson (11-9, 5.51) will get the nod in Game 2. He is 1-3 in his last six starts, but that win was a big one as he scattered four hits over 8 1/3 innings in Friday's victory over Bowie. A much-heralded pitcher when he was with the Mets, Peterson's effort has been frenetic since coming to Pittsburgh. His strikeout-to-walk ratio (87-to-74) is bad, though it has improved (22-to-8) over his last four starts. Coincidentally, his ERA is 2.67 over that stretch. Tom Gorzelanny (8-5, 3.26) shut out Bowie for five innings on Saturday and will start Game 3. He's 4-0 in his last eight starts with a 3.05 ERA. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is much better at 124-to-46. Hansel Izquierdo (7-5, 4.51) and Shane Youman (8-6, 3.92) are scheduled for Games 4 and 5, if needed. Capps has taken over closer and has seven saves in 17 appearances.
AT THE PLATE
Ryan Mulhern joined Akron from Kinston in mid June and has been nothing short of spectacular since his arrival, hitting .311 with 15 homers and 46 RBIs in 67 games. While Jonathon Van Every is hitting only .244, he does have some pop, as evidenced by his franchise-record-tying 27 homers. He also has a propensity to miss a great deal, as evidenced by his 155 strikeouts. Eider Torres has 33 stolen bases and five triples so his speed could play a huge role for the Aeros. For it to be a factor, he has to have more patience than he displayed while collecting 16 walks during the regular season. Akron set a club mark with an Eastern League-leading 151 homers.
The Curve finished second in the league in homers and also set a franchise record with 141. Josh Bonifay had two homers and nine RBIs against Akron but hit only .228. His overall numbers are a tad better, though, as he leads the clubs in homers (25) and RBIs (77). He also hit some 60 points higher overall than against the Aeros. Craig Stansberry and Tom Evans combined for 33 homers and 122 RBIs. Rich Thompson and Rajai Davis each had 45 steals, but Davis is out with a fractured right hand he suffered against Bowie on Aug. 23.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Altoona reached the playoffs for a third consecutive year after a stunning four-game sweep of Bowie this weekend after trailing by two games entering the series. The Curve dropped an opening-round series to Akron in 2003 and were swept by New Hampshire in the championship round last year. NHL superstar Mario Lemieux is part of the Curve's ownership group. ... Cleveland's Triple-A affiliate in Buffalo also reached the playoffs in the International League. The Aeros won their only Eastern League title in 2003 and have now reached the playoffs three of the last four years. Torey Lovullo is the sixth Akron manager since 1989 to reach the playoffs in his first year as the club's manager.
SERIES COULD TURN ON...
Altoona's pitching. The talent is there in Peterson and Gorzelanny. If they pitch to their capabilities, the Curve could pull off a stunner greater than the one against Bowie.
Akron is rested and Altoona is due for a letdown after its big weekend. The Aeros are a more complete club. Akron in four.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com.