Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thunder fall as Aeros clinch ELCS


TRENTON – With two outs and the bases loaded, the ninth inning on Saturday night bore the same distinct feel that rest of the season had. No matter the deficit – in this case five runs – no matter the situation – down to their last out in Game 4 of the Eastern League Championship Series – there was no obstacle too imposing for the 2012 Thunder.

It wasn’t until Davis Stoneburner had accepted Matt Lawson’s feed at second base and the Akron Aeros were dancing on the infield as champions after a 6-1 win at Waterfront Park that one could finally be certain that Trenton didn’t have one final trick up its sleeve.

Perhaps that’s why the clubhouse afterward didn’t feel like a postmortem. Instead, there was an air of content, knowing that – just like they had all season – they’d left everything on the field, even it meant they’d come up short.

“There’s nothing more you can say. We played aggressive. They beat us,” shortstop Addison Maruszak said. “They outhit us, they outpitched us, we didn’t get hits at the right time. They just flat-out beat us today, just like we grinded it out yesterday. Unfortunately, we had to win all the rest.”

Down five runs, David Adams and Zoilo Almonte each grounded to third on the first pitches they saw. Then Maruszak, the only Thunder player to hit better than .300 on a team that collectively hit .207 this postseason, socked a single to center off of Preston Guilmet, Akron’s closer and the Eastern League’s Reliever of the Year.

J.R. Murphy and Kevin Mahoney followed with walks, setting things up for Rob Segedin, who swung at Guilmet’s first pitch. For a moment, it appeared as if his duck snort would fall in and slice at least two runs from Akron’s lead. Instead, it dropped just foul in shallow right. Two pitches later, Segedin’s roller to second started the Aeros’ party.

Watching from the bench, the Thunder thought the inning might just have had the makings of yet another special moment in a season packed with them.

“That’s what I was hoping for,” Adams said. “Honestly, I think four or five guys on the bench were like 
‘Segy, you put up a big one right here and it’s over.’ You’ve got to tip your hats to those guys. They played well all year. They had our number early in the year and they just beat us right there. They just beat us.”

The driving force for the Aeros on Saturday night was unquestionably Toru Murata, a 27-year-old former Yomuiri Giant pitching in the postseason for the first time.

Murata, who allowed just four earned runs over his final 30 2/3 innings of the regular season, held the Thunder to one run on three hits over 6 1/3 innings before being lifted for strong-armed righty Shawn Armstrong. Before Maruszak’s single knocked him from the game, Murata had retired 15 consecutive hitters, starting in the second inning.

Nik Turley, taking the ball for just the third time in Double-A, was one bad inning away from matching Murata. The lefty fanned eight over six innings before yielding to David Aardsma, who pitched a scoreless seventh in his fourth appearance with the Thunder this postseason.

In the second, a triple from ELCS MVP Adam Abraham off of Turley plated Akron’s first run. He scored a batter later on Ryan Rohlinger’s sac fly to right field to give Murata and the Aeros all the support they’d need.

Murphy’s longball in the bottom half of the inning provided all of Trenton’s offense, though a controversial call at home plate in the first inning helped quash another potential rally.

With one out and Adonis Garcia on third after a leadoff triple, Adams grounded a ball toward first baseman Jesus Aguilar, who fired home to catcher Roberto Perez. Home plate ump Shaun Lampe made no call, indicating that he believed Garcia missed the plate. Perez then followed Garcia toward the dugout to apply the tag.

“That was a big momentum-breaker for us,” Adams said. “Then after that it seemed like we just couldn’t get anything going. We couldn’t get guys on base. I mean, we only had three hits off the guy. It’s tough to win games when you only have three hits.”

Though photographs later showed that Garcia had gotten the plate with his left hand, Trenton’s chance at an early run went by the wayside.

“The call in the first inning kind of set the tone for things to come,” manager Tony Franklin said. “If it had gone the other way, I’m not so sure what would have happened. It just kind of set the tone for the game. We just couldn’t get untracked.”

Afterward, Franklin, who strongly indicated that he’d be willing to come back for a seventh season at Trenton’s helm, said he’ll remember this team as one that fought for each other through what was, at times, an incredibly frustrating five and a half months.

“Extremely (proud), more than I can express,” he said. “I think this group of guys was kind of underestimated as to how far they were going to go. I certainly didn’t know in the beginning, but after the first month of the season, you start to recognize your personalities. It was very evident to me that we had a bunch of guys who were extremely motivated to do some good things.”

And although they didn’t finish the season as champions, the players in the locker room on Saturday night seemed extremely pleased with what they had managed to accomplish and all the challenges they’d overcome over the last 150 games.


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