(READING, PA) - The Eastern League Playoffs returned to Reading for the first time in three years on Wednesday night at America's Classic Ballpark. The crowd of 4,250 was locked in from the get-go, getting louder with each strikeout for game one starter and Phillies top pitching prospect Spencer Howard . He ended his night with his career-high 12th strikeout to finish the seventh inning with a 3-1 lead, but all the good feelings went away when the Thunder sent all nine to the plate and took control in the eighth inning. With a 4-3 win in the opener, the Thunder will look to send the series back to Trenton for the weekend after the teams get together one final time at FirstEnergy Stadium on Thursday night.
Flashing a 97-MPH fastball in the first inning, Howard struck out two batters in four of his first five frames. During that stretch, the Thunder only had one baserunner when Eastern League Most Valubale Player Chris Gittens reached on a five-pitch walk to start the second.
Trenton made a slght adjustment to its rotation, pushing back scheduled starter Clarke Schmidt to piggybacking duty so lefthander Jordan Montgomery could make his third rehab start on the comeback trail from Tommy John surgery. Like Howard, Montgomery retired the side in order in the first, then worked around singles from Darick Hall and Nick Maton in the second.
The Fightin Phils broke the scoreless tie in the third when Luke Williams laid down a bunt with one out, only to advance to third when Montgomery's spinning throw ended up near the tarp down the right field line. Mickey Moniak made it 1-0 with a hard lineout to right, and after Alec Bohm reached on an infield single, Hall smoked a double to dead center for a 2-0 advantage.
With Schmidt in for the fourth, Maton reached on a fielder's choice with one out, then skipped all the way to third because of an errant pickoff attempt and a balk. Arquimedes Gamboa pushed the lead to 3-0 because of a sacrifice fly, which for awhile looked like more than enough for Howard.
The Thunder pushed across their lone run against him during the sixth because Rashad Crawford worked a one-out walk and Ben Ruta picked up the first hit with an infield single. After a wild pitch advanced the runners into scoring position, Alexander Palma made it a 3-1 ballgame with a sacrifice fly to center field. Howard ended the inning with his tenth strikeouts, then tacked on two more in the seventh to one-up his previous career high.
Trenton's eighth inning should have started with a swinging strikeout of Max Burt , but a 1-2 wild pitch from Jeff Singer bounced away and put the leadoff man aboard. Crawford singled on an 0-2 pitch to put the tying runs at the corners, and Ruta's single back up the middle cut the deficit to 3-2. Singer (0-1) surrendered an RBI groundout to Palma but left after a 10-pitch at-bat against Hoy Jun Park ended with a walk, at which point Garrett Cleavinger came into the ballgame.
The lefthander sandwiched a strikeout of Kellin Deglan in between two more walks, with Kyle Holder drawing the latter with the bases loaded to bring in a run and give the Thunder their first lead. Schmidt (1-0) faced the minimum from the fifth inning on, allowing just one baserunner when Hall collected his third hit with a leadoff single in the sixth.
America's Classic Ballpark is proud to be a part of Pennsylvania's Americana Region and was voted the #1 stadium in all of Double-A by MiLB's Ben Hill. Follow the Fightins on Twitter at @ReadingFightins and like them on Facebook via www.facebook.com/fightins. Purchase playoff tickets TODAY - call or TEXT 610-370-BALL or visit the Weidenhammer Ticket Office at FirstEnergy Stadium.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.