TRENTON — After enduring a season of full of injuries, the Thunder will open the playoffs tonight in Reading missing one of their lineup’s biggest cogs.
The team announced on Tuesday that Luke Murton, whose 25 longballs led Trenton and placed second in the Eastern League behind Darin Ruf, had been promoted to Triple-A to take the place of the released Kosuke Fukudome and open a spot for hurler Zach Nuding.
Just as they have all season, though, Trenton will soldier on, and will do so Wednesday with their ace, Brett Marshall, taking the ball in Game 1 opposite Reading’s Austin Hyatt.
Marshall, whose 13 wins were the most for a Thunder starter since Jason Jones’ 13 back in 2008, made two starts against Reading this year, posting a 1-1 record and 5.11 ERA. He permitted just nine hits and fanned 14 over 12 1/3 innings.
Lefty Shaeffer Hall will take the ball in Game 2, followed by Mikey O’Brien and Nik Turley when the series returns to Waterfront Park for the third and fourth games of the series. Reading will counter with Trevor May, Ethan Martin and Adam Morgan. Neither team has announced its starter for a possible fifth game, which would also be played in Trenton.
All season long, Trenton’s bread-and-butter has been the longball. The team poked a franchise-best 162 homers, and will look to do even more damage at cozy FirstEnergy Stadium on Wednesday and Thursday.
The men responsible for 59 of those homers – Murton, Melky Mesa and Cody Johnson – are gone, however, and Trenton will instead rely on a pair of talented newcomers in outfielders Tyler Austin and Ramon Flores to buoy stalwarts like Addison Maruszak, David Adams and All-Star outfielder Zoilo Almonte.
Austin, dubbed a “megaprospect” by Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, has emerged this season as one of the organization’s top two offensive prospects, rivaled only by catcher Gary Sanchez, who finished this season in High-A.
After starting the year with Low-A Charleston and finishing with Trenton, Austin, who doesn’t turn 21 until Thursday, with a .322 average, on-base and slugging percentages of .400 and .559, 35 doubles, 17 homers and 80 RBIs.
Because Tampa wasn’t eliminated from the Florida State League playoff chase until the penultimate day of the year, Austin doesn’t have to work hard to get geared up for postseason action.
“We had a shot in Tampa up until the last couple of nights,” Austin said. “I think it definitely keeps you focused. We’d been in a playoff race and now I’m up here trying to help this team win a championship.”
Flores, who slugged a home run in his first Double-A game in Monday’s season finale at Binghamton, brings with him a keen batting eye, a mature approach at the plate, if perhaps less power than most corner outfielders.
“He’s got a pretty swing, that kid,” a scout said. “He goes deep in counts, he’ll take his walks. He’s a patient hitter. … I like the swing and I like the plate discipline, but I don’t think he’s ever going to hit for a whole lot of power.”
Along with Austin and Flores, the Thunder also added a pair of relievers who, when coupled with Mark Montgomery and Ryan Pope, will make it paramount that Reading get to the Thunder’s starters.
Tommy Kahnle and Branden Pinder each bring mid-90s fastballs and above average offspeed stuff – a slider for Kahnle and a split-finger for Pinder – at the opposition. They’ve each struggled with command but have improved over the past two months.
From July through the end of August, the pair combined fan 68 against 16 walks in just 55 innings.
If they can continue that trend starting Wednesday, the Thunder can shorten games to six innings.
After finishing two wins shy of a championship in 2010 and missing the playoffs entirely last season, Trenton hopes it can get back to the promised land starting Wednesday and add to their resume a third championship in six seasons.