— At the time, it seemed like the kind of play that could turn the momentum decidedly in Trenton’s favor. It was the top of the second inning, and the Thunder were threatening against Reading starter Austin Hyatt. Zoilo Almonte led off the frame with a first pitch single through the right side, and promptly stole second. Kevin Mahoney walked, which set the stage for J.R. Murphy.
Murphy, who has struggled at the plate in his first foray in Double-A, hit what appeared to be a routine fly out to Phillies right fielder Leandro Castro.
“Actually, I didn’t even see it,” Murphy admitted. “I took my eye off it for a second to see what the runners were doing, so I never saw it.”
What Murphy missed was, well…Castro missing the ball. He caught it, but never had complete control and lost it on the transfer. Murphy was initially ruled out, but after a protest from an angry Tony Franklin and Luis Dorante, the umpires convened and the call was reversed.
“Normally, if you catch it and make the exchange and get it in your hand, it’s pretty much ruled a catch, but he never got control of the ball,” Franklin said.
“You have to get control of the ball for a minimal amount of time, and I don’t think that happened. I think when they got the chance to discuss it, they did get the call right.”
It did seem that the umpires did, in fact, get the call correct. But it also easily could have gone against the Thunder. It was a break the team wasn’t getting during the last week, but Franklin conceded that it was great to finally get a win after some tough moments lately.
“We were getting nothing,” he said. “It’s not that we were playing terrible, it’s just that nothing was falling for us and it just seemed like everything was going against us. A lot of times, when you’re in those downward spirals, everything that could go wrong, does go wrong and you’re not the benefactor of any good fortune. Tonight, we got some, and you need that.”
Added Murphy: “We were having some tough luck in a few of those games, but we also made some mistakes and weren’t playing to what we’re capable of doing. It was a little bit of both, but it was good to see a break go our way.”
The Thunder got another one just two batters later. After a Rob Segedin sacrifice fly put Trenton on top, 1-0, Walter Ibarra singled through the right side…Mahoney scored easily, but Castro bobbled the ball in right, which allowed Ibarra to advance to second. Then, his throw hit Ibarra and trickled away into short left field, which advanced Ibarra to third. That gave Castro three errors in one inning. Not ideal.
As for Murphy, while his second inning contribution was in doubt for a minute, his fourth inning home run never was. He hit an absolute no-doubter off of Hyatt, padding Trenton’s lead to 4-1 at the time.
“I’ve been trying to work on a different approach and seeing more pitches,” Murphy said. “I’m trying to think more right, right-center. But he happened to give me a cookie, and I crushed it. I put a good swing on it.”
— Early on, Shaeffer Hall was cruising. He needed just 64 pitches to get through the first five frames, and held the Phillies to just one run on a second-inning Miguel Abreu RBI single. But he ran into some trouble in the sixth, hitting Tyson Gillies — who made zero effort to get out of the way of a pitch that barely nicked him — to lead things off. Darin Ruf then did what Darin Ruf does, and hit a home run to deep left field for his 29th of the season to cut Trenton’s lead to just 6-3. Things got really tight when Abreu drove in two after Ibarra bobbled a ball at shortstop and then Mahoney couldn’t catch Ibarra’s rushed throw at first.
But ultimately, the team’s reliable southpaw starter delivered when his team really needed him.
“It was a must-win for us tonight,” Hall said.
“Going into the game, we kind of treated it like it was a whole new series, a whole new road trip. We tried to flush what we’d been going through and try to get out there and keep the momentum on our side. We had some big innings, and all I tried to do was go out there and put up some zeroes or keep it to a minimum. I think that’s what I did tonight. The only pitch I really missed (in the sixth) was a changeup a little up to Ruf. But after that, those base hits, I made some pretty good pitches. That’s what was going on in the back of my mind, to just keep fighting and keep executing and try to get out of this one.”
— The Trenton Thunder do not win this game without a ballsy outing by Graham Stoneburner. Since returning as a reliever, Stoneburner had faced the Phillies twice and gotten shellacked both times to the tune of nine runs in three innings of work. Today? Two 1-2-3 frames.
“They got to me the last two times, and as a competitor that’s kind of a team that I want to pitch against,” Stoneburner said.
“They have some really good hitters, so I wanted to go out there and make good pitches and execute and have some guys play well behind and make some really good plays. That’s what happened.”
Said Franklin — “He had better pitch location today. He was down low in the strike zone, and it’s tough to hit fly balls when you’re down there. He throws the ball hard enough, there’s no question about that. When he can keep his ball down in the strike zone and he gets good movement on it, he pitches great. He does a fantastic job, and he did that today.”
The key moment of Stoneburner’s outing came in the eighth inning, his second, when he faced Ruf to lead it off. Stoneburner went right after the Eastern League’s home run leader, getting ahead 0-2 on two outside fastballs that were in the high 80’s. After Ruf fouled the third pitch off, Stoneburner ramped his cheddar up to 91 miles per hour to induce a weak groundout to second base.
“I was just kind of going with Murph, he’d been catching the whole game, and I’m going to trust him,” he said. “He’s a real smart guy, and we were working the outer half. I wanted to make sure I located my fastball on that outer half, and I was fortunate enough to do so. I got a ground ball out of it.”
— Luke Murton was ejected. Four words I never expected to write. I’ve never heard Murton even casually swear in the clubhouse, so it was a little surprising that home plate umpire Joe Born — whose strike zone was about as wide as Michelle Duggar’s legs every nine months or so – tossed him after Murton slammed his helmet in frustration after his fourth strikeout in as many at-bats.
Murton did not slam his helmet in the direction of the umpire, nor did he say anything derogatory towards him, but was still given the gate. It was a decision that Franklin obviously did not agree with, as he and hitting coach Tom Slater were both animated with the umpiring crew in defending their slugger.
“You’re not supposed to throw equipment, but he did it out of frustration, and I told Joe that,” Franklin said.
“Slater was out before me, because everybody gets there before me. But he did it out of frustration, he didn’t turn around and say anything to the umpire. He threw the helmet and walked away, and I can certainly understand that. I think once Joe has a chance to think about it, he will realize that it wasn’t anything intended toward him. It had nothing to do with the call.”
— Not shockingly, the cramped quarters of the visitors clubhouse at First Energy Stadium was a happy place to be. Stoneburner, Murphy and Hall were all pleased to play key roles in ending the team’s season-long slide.
Stoneburner: “It’s really big. That seemed like a really long losing streak, and it’s big for us to snap out of it. We’re a lot better team than our record showed the past week, so it was huge for us. A lot of guys stepped up and played extremely aggressive tonight and we played the baseball we’ve been playing all year. That was key.”
Murphy: “It’s huge. I would have liked to have won it 6-1 instead of having those four runs in that one inning, but having a close game win like that proved a lot. It took a lot of guts, so it was good. It was fun.”
Hall: “It’s big. Especially since they’re in the playoff race, being four games going into the game. To get that extra game up and having Marshall coming on the mound tomorrow, it’s big. I feel like our energy level was up a little bit more than it has been, and I think that’s going to carrry over for tomorrow.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com