AKRON, Ohio -- If there was any debate as to whether the presence of Travis Hafner was a huge advantage or major distraction for the Akron Aeros heading into Game 3 of the Eastern League semifinals, the Indians slugger quickly put the argument to rest.
In his second at-bat following a first-inning walk, the 30-year-old designated hitter blasted a grand slam that landed just in front of the scoreboard in right field, sparking the Aeros to a 6-2 victory over the Bowie Baysox.
"[Hafner's homer] made a big difference in the game," Aeros manager Mike Sarbaugh said. "But he's still rehabbing and trying to get his timing in order in order to get back to where he needs to be."
The win gave the Aeros a 2-1 advantage in the best-of-5 series, which continues Saturday at Canal Park. If the Baysox knot the series again, the decisive fifth game would be Sunday at Prince George's Stadium.
If the series goes that far, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Hafner likely would not travel with Akron. But Sarbaugh thought he might be back in the lineup Saturday.
The only reason such an established Major Leaguer is even in the midst of the Double-A playoffs is because Hafner has been sidelined since May 31 with a right shoulder strain. The nagging injury, which some believe is more a partial tear than just inflammation, had sapped all of Hafner's strength, rendering his Bunyanesque swing useless in hitting .217 before finally being coaxed onto the disabled list.
But after being shut down for a couple months, then beginning his rehab assignment at Triple-A Buffalo on Aug. 18, Hafner has been hitting well -- just not every day.
In seven games with the Bisons, he batted .318 (7-for-22) with three doubles, four RBIs and four runs scored. But when September rolled around and Major League rosters expanded, Hafner was not among the handful of Bisons promoted to Cleveland.
"It's just a matter of being able to get through back-to-back games," Hafner said. "In Buffalo, I was up to where I'd feel good through three at-bats. Now I'm working on getting through four at-bats instead of three."
So while the results have come in terms of statistics on the page, Hafner's still searching for the everyday consistency that is vital in the Major Leagues.
"It's gotten better," he said of the shoulder. "The first game, it would tire out after the first at-bat. Now I'm getting though three at-bats where I feel strong. But I need to get through three, four, five at-bats feeling that way."
Despite the progress, Hafner knows he's still a long way from the form he displayed in 2006, when he hit .308 with a career-high 42 home runs and 117 RBIs in 129 games.
"If you're not making any progress [in rehab], then it gets really frustrating," Hafner said. "But if you look week to week, you can definitely see that it continues to get better. It's been a process and I've still got a ways to go once the season done to continue strengthening it. But it's headed in the right direction."
That's why the Aeros will take half a Hafner -- or "Pronk" as he prefers to be called. While he powered the offense, starter Ryan Edell (1-0) held the Baysox to one run on four hits while striking out seven over 7 1/3 frames.
The Baysox didn't get on the board until the eighth, when hot-hitting Nolan Reimold -- coming off a three-homer, eight-RBI performance in Game 2 -- doubled in a pair of runs.
But Bowie's biggest troubles came on the mound in the form of David Hernandez, who looked little like the dominating pitcher who fanned a league-leading 166 during the regular season. The right-hander allowed six runs on five hits, including Hafner's bases-loaded blast, in two innings before he was ejected while in the dugout in the top of the third.
Apparently, Hernandez felt he was being squeezed by home plate umpire Brad Purdom and voiced his opinion loud enough to be heard over the crowd. He was promptly tossed by first base umpire Mark Buchanon.