— It would seem that your initial impression of the 2012 Trenton Thunder would be based on which of the three games you came out to during the opening series against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats.
Is what you saw on Thursday and Friday — a team that struggled to score four runs in 18 innings — more indicative of what you’ll see all season? Or is what happened on Saturday afternoon more likely? Truth be told, it’s surely somewhere in the middle of the two extremes that bookended the three-game series, but today sure wasn’t bad as far as offensive explosions go.
After Friday night’s debacle, Thunder manager Tony Franklin said he was hoping for an “outburst,” suggesting that “five or six runs” would qualify. He got much more than that in an 11-2 drubbing of their division rivals.
“It was just one of those days,” Franklin said. “We were in both of those ballgames that we lost, and we made some mistakes here and there…today, everything just kind of came together. The score indicates how well we did.”
It took seven Thunder home runs, a new record for a franchise that played its 2,548th game today, to overshadow the debut of Brett Marshall, who is the team’s most highly touted pitching prospect this season. Marshall got his first Double-A win in his first attempting, holding New Hampshire to just two runs on two hits and three walks through five innings, but he could have been far worse and it wouldn’t have mattered.
Deck McGuire, the 11th overall pick in the 2010 draft by the Blue Jays, struggled all day long and gave up five of those seven longballs, including back-to-back-to-back jacks by Zoilo Almonte, Rob Lyerly and Melky Mesa. It was the first time since April 17, 2004 that the team hit three consecutive home runs, a feat that Robinson Cano was involved with, and only the sixth time in franchise history they’d hit three home runs in one inning.
Of all seven home runs — Lyerly and Cody Johnson hit two a piece, while Almonte, Mesa and Jose Gil accounted for the others — Johnson’s first home run was the most memorable. Several players in the clubhouse were saying it was the furthest they’d ever seen a baseball hit, and it was hard to argue given that it landed OVER the batters eye in center field. The wall itself is 407 feet away from home plate, and the batters eye easily is 30-35 feet high.
“He just left me a 2-0 fastball up in the zone, and I put a good swing on it,” Johnson said. “The wind helped it out a little bit, but I got a good bit of that one.”
When asked if he’d hit one that far before, the prolific power hitter nonchalantly suggested a ball he hit last season in Reading might have been crushed even harder. Then, he wondered what the ball he hit today might have damaged on its way into orbit.
“Once it clears the wall, there’s no telling where the ball goes,” he said. “I think there might be a parking lot back there, so hopefully it didn’t go through somebody’s winshield.”
It’s hard not to be happy for Johnson, who is one of the friendliest and talkative players in the Thunder clubhouse, no matter how things are going. But the at-bat he was happiest about wasn’t one you’ll see on any highlight reels. A simple single through the left side had him smiling from ear to ear when discussing it with reporters afterwards.
“That was probably my best at-bat,” he said. “I stayed on a 2-0 fastball down and away. It would have been a strike, but I was able to stay on it. That was probably the best I’ve felt in a while, just being able to stay through a ball like that.”
Despite seven home runs today, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to only see a handful the rest of the month. As Franklin will tell you, this wasn’t supposed to be a power hitting team.
“I didn’t see it that way coming out of spring training,” he said. “It just kind of happened, but I do think we’ve got guys in the lineup who are capable of hitting home runs; Mesa, Almonte, Cody, Lyerly. These guys do have power, but it’s how consistent we’re going to be with it that’s going to make the difference.”
Lyerly had a bit of a bounceback game himself after two tough ones to begin the year, but even his two home runs got overshadowed by Johnson’s moonshot.
“It sure was a good day to hit,” said Lyerly through a big smile. “I hadn’t swung it really well, even my first at-bat today wasn’t very good. I was just fortunate to get a couple pitches to hit and put a good swing on them.”
— Ah yes, Brett Marshall. The big storylines of the day were supposed to be both his debut and the matchup between he and McGuire. Rated the 11th-best prospect in the Yankees organization by Baseball America, the talkative Texan struggled early on. He had thrown 51 pitches through two innings, and seemed well on his way to an early exit. But he settled down and ultimately allowed just two runs on two hits and three walks in five innings, earning his first Double-A win.
“He did OK,” Franklin said. “I’m sure there were some jitters there, his first time out there. His last couple innings, he started to find his rhythm. His pitches were a little sharper, but he got to his allotment of pitches, so we had to get him out of there.”
Marshall had 81 pitches through four innings and was only expected to throw 90. Franklin said he was close to taking him out, but his efficient five-pitch fifth made it a non-issue.
“He was close (to coming out),” Franklin said. “We were talking about if he got this guy or he didn’t get this guy, we had somebody ready to go. It had nothing to do with the lead, it was more his ability to throw strikes and get guys out. if he had struggled with his command, we would have got him out of there.”
Marshall was pleased with his performance overall, but did admit to have some nerves early on.
“I was trying to get the first inning of the year out of the way,” he said.
“The wind was kicking and blowing against me, so it makes my ball move a lot more. You have to kind of adjust to the wind. I was having a little trouble the first few innings with that, but I got better and settled down. I can’t lie, I did have some jitters in that first inning, it being my first start in Double-A, but other than that, it was OK.”
Marshall had seen many of the Fisher Cats before, both facing them while they were with Dunedin or watching them while doing the chart in the stands the first two days, and knew he had to keep the ball down against a team that took “big hacks.” His next start will likely take place on Friday in Akron, and he knows he needs to improve on his command for that outing and future ones.
“I felt like I was all over the place (today),” he said. “I think I should be a lot more in control now that I got the first game out of the way, so I should be a lot better from here on out.”
Perhaps the only uncertainty surrounding Marshall is if his personal cheering section will come with him. Around 20 family members and friends sat behind home plate cheering him on, all easily identifiable in RiverDogs-themed “We Are Marshall” attire with his name and number on the back.
“Whenever I have family come, it’s fun having them in the stands being able to watch me, especially because they’re 1,000 miles away,” he said.
“My family came from Texas, and I have an aunt and uncle that live in New York, so they’re only 90 miles. Them and a bunch of their friends came, so it was nice having them.”
— A trip to the visiting clubhouse after the game, and things were far less celebratory over there. Blue equipment bags were being packed, and 6-foot-6, 235 pound Deck McGuire was finishing a post-game meal and drink near the center table where the spread sits. The clear plastic cup looked more like a shot glass in the tall Georgia Tech alum’s hand, who was very gracious to speak with me afterwards.
“That was definitely a first, but it’s a credit to those guys in other locker room,” said McGuire, who allowed eight runs on 11 hits in five innings.
“They came out swinging, they hit every mistake, and they hit some good pitches. It’s just one of those days. It’s early in the year, and I’ve just got to bounce back and go after it every fifth day. I definitely left some pitches in the middle of the plate, but I was up early in the game, and they got a couple extra-base hits. I actually thought I made some pretty decent pitches, they just put really good swings on them and got the job done.”
Longballs aren’t something McGuire is too used to giving up. In 291 collegiate innings, he allowed 29. In his first 125 1/3 professional innings, he’d given up just 13. Tonight? Five.
“Hitting is contagious, and I felt like every time a guy stepped in the box, he was a little more comfortable than the last guy,” McGuire said.
“I’ve just got to try and bounce back and execute my pitches better next time out. I need to keep the ball down better and out of the middle of the plate more than anything. I thought we changed speeds well and I thought we mixed it up pretty good, but I just didn’t execute and didn’t really give the guys behind me a chance to make any plays to help me out.”
— I didn’t see Marshall over 93 MPH. McGuire was around 90 MPH.
— Zoilo Almonte finally had his breakout game after going 0-for-his first two. He went 3-for-5 with a home run and two RBI today to get out of his mini-slump.
“That’s what he’s capable of, and that’s why people are starting to talk about the kid,” Franklin said. “He’s got that kind of ability. The first couple nights were kind of difficult, but we’ve got a long way to go. Hopefully, we’re going to see a lot more of what we saw today in the next few games.”
— There’s a lot you could overlook in this game, but the bullpen shouldn’t be one of those things. Kelvin Perez, Lee Hyde, Preston Claiborne and Ryan Pope each got one of the final four innings and allowed just one walk (Perez) and two hits (Pope) while striking out six. Perez and Claiborne particularly stood out, with the former hitting 94 MPH on the gun with a very hard fastball, and Claiborne no slouch at 93 MPH.
— Spoke to Craig Heyer about his Triple-A debut, in which he spun 4 1/3 scoreless innings for Empire State.
“There’s not many easy outs up there,” he said. “I kind of got away with some pitches a little bit. I had a little run, a little sink on the ball. I just kind of tried to locate as best as I could.”
Heyer, who was so excited to finally have a set role, knew what he was getting into when he got the surprise call-up.
“They said they just needed a guy to fill in, pretty much what I’ve been doing for the past couple of years,” he said. “I knew Manny Delcarmen was going to start, go a couple innings, and I was going to come in and try to go as far as I could.”
Heyer told reporters he feels like he could be in somebody’s bullpen in the big leagues one day, but for now will return to his starting role with the Thunder, which will resume Tuesday.
— Here’s some video from today, including Cody Johnson’s first home run…
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com