TRENTON, N.J. -- In his first full season at the Double-A level, Austin Jackson has impressed baseball folks if not with his bat, like his first-inning laser of a home run in Game 3 of the Eastern League Championship Series, then certainly with his glove.
Blessed with the kind of natural athleticism that allows him to cover large portions of ground in center field, the 21-year-old Jackson robbed the Akron Aeros of one, if not two, homers in the Thunder's 4-1 victory on Saturday at Waterfront Park.
Game 4 is set for Sunday at 6:05 p.m. ET. Another victory by the Thunder would give them back-to-back championships. If Akron wins, a deciding fifth game is slated for Monday at 6:05 p.m.
After joining Trenton in time for the first title in franchise history last season, Jackson appears set to make it two in a row.
"The first catch against [Wes] Hodges, I'm not sure if it would have gone out of the park," Aeros manager Mike Sarbaugh said. "But the one [he robbed Matt] Whitney of, that one changed the whole complexion of the game. If Jackson doesn't make that catch, the score would have been 3-3 and the game totally different."
Jackson's outfield plays impressed many, including Trenton's laid-back manager Tony Franklin.
"His ability to go left 50 yards and make a play like that, and then go another 50 yards the other way and go over the wall to make that catch, that's a Major League center fielder right there," Franklin said.
Trenton took a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Jackson sparked a two-out rally by yanking Ryan Edell's first offering over the left-center field wall for a solo shot. Although Chris Malec and Colin Curtis followed with singles, Edell escaped without further damage after P.J. Pilittere just got under a ball he sent to the wall in left.
But Edell never really seemed to settle in comfortably, going 4 2/3 innings while allowing seven hits and spotting the Thunder a three-run lead. Erik Stiller, who attended nearby Princeton University, came on with two outs in the fifth.
Meanwhile, Trenton starter George Kontos didn't look like a pitcher who hadn't thrown since Aug. 30, making a strong first playoff start. Although limited to 4 2/3 innings, the right-hander held the Aeros to one run on two hits while striking out three.
Akron came within inches of tying the game with two outs in the fourth inning on Hodges' hard shot to right-center, but Jackson made a leaping catch just above the wall to rob him. When Kontos realized Jackson actually managed to haul in the ball, he jumped up and down on the mound.
"With Superman out there, I'd be excited too, if I were them," Aeros designated hitter Whitney said. "It was pretty impressive."
Jackson shrugged off all the postgame praise.
"I just try to make every play when the ball is hit out to the outfield," he said. "I'm not sure [about the first one], but the second one, it was going over and I got it before it went over."
Trenton increased its lead in the fourth when Edell issued two walks and gave up a double to Francisco Cervelli to load the bases. Kevin Russo drove in a run with a slow roller toward third base. Hodges charged the ball and scooped it quickly but hesitated and threw just late to first. Reegie Corona made it 3-0 with a sacrifice fly to center field.
Akron responded with its first run in the fifth frame, using walks by Stephen Head and Wyatt Toregas to start the rally. But Whitney flied to deep center on another ball that appeared headed over the wall before Jackson flagged it down. Nate Panther drove in Head with a sacrifice fly.
When Brandon Pinckney followed with a single through the left side of the infield to put two men on, Kontos was lifted for Anthony Claggett, who needed one pitch to retire Josh Rodriguez on a pop fly.
Both bullpens held the score for a few innings until Akron lefty Reid Santos gave up a key insurance run in the eighth. With one out, Pilittere doubled down the left-field line and took third on a wild pitch before coming home on Edwar Gonzalez's single.
"I think we played a fantastic game, I think we got some good pitching, and what can I say about [closer Jhonny] Nunez?" Franklin said. "He was great as usual. George gave us exactly what we needed tonight. Claggett was really, really good along with [Michael] Dunn. Three hits? Wow! Against that lineup, that's pretty good pitching."
Good pitching, aided by some timely defense by Jackson.