As routine as always, the Akron Aeros swept through the mismatched Reading Phillies to make it to the Championship round of the Eastern League for the fifth consecutive season. Highlighted by dominant starting pitching, the Aeros out-scored the Phillies 24-9 in the series and will take on the Connecticut Defenders (Double-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants) starting tonight at Dodd Stadium in Norwich, CT. It was no surprise to see the Defenders take care of the second-place New Britain Rock Cats in their divisional championship as these two teams had been the tops in the league for the past several months.
The Indians season is cruising along agonizingly slowly, but the Aeros are in the thick of playoff baseball yet again. This pennant run in 2009 marks the 9th time in 13 years since the move from Thurman Munson Stadium in Canton that the Indians Double-A affiliate has made the playoffs as well as the 7th time in eight years. Led by many of the featured prospects in the organization (Carlos Santana, Jeanmar Gomez) as well as some recently acquired pitchers (Scott Barnes, Connor Graham), the Aeros cruised through the regular season Eastern League schedule and have now won 11 consecutive games dating back to the regular season.
Just as I did in the first round, I will break down the match-up between the two teams as well as the MVP’s for both teams in the year so far. I will also do my best to write down the pitching match-ups in connection to the recently established schedule for the series. When Connecticut came to Canal Park during the weekend of August 4th through the 6th, many felt it would be a preview of the ELCS and this has come true as the Defenders coasted through the North and won their divisional championship in four games:
In the beginning of the season, as I have mentioned many times before, the Aeros were among the top teams in all of professional baseball and thus I kept a continuous tab on some of the other top performing teams across the minor leagues for the purpose of the media relations of the team. One team that definitely caught my eye by May/June was Connecticut, as after they began the year slightly mediocre with a 20-18 start, they suddenly caught fire. The Defenders won eight of ten games towards the end of May, and then won 14 of 19 times in a long stretch in July, joining the ranks of the team tops in all of baseball. Their blistering 32-17 stretch helped them move out to 17 games over .500 cemented them on top of the weak Northern Division. Connecticut also enters the Championship riding a bit of momentum just like the red-hot Aeros as they have now gone 20-10 in their past 30 games including the divisional series.
One thing that I did mention in the preview with Reading however is that the Defenders will be missing one of the top prospects because of a surprising promotion. Left-hander Madison Bumgarner, the top prize of the Giants system, received a promotion all the way to the majors from Connecticut on September 8th in replace of the injured reigning Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. Bumgarner’s talent will certainly be missed as he was clearly the ace in the Defenders rotation, going 9-1 with a 1.93 ERA in 20 games (19 starts) for the team this season. Connecticut finished the year ranking third in the Eastern League with a 3.53 ERA as their home ballpark is a dead zone for all visiting sluggers. Only 58 home runs total were hit all season at Dodd Stadium, a shocking total compared to the fact 1123 home runs were hit this season across 12 teams in the EL (this means every other stadium in the league averaged 96.8 total homers this year).
Connecticut’s Co-MVP’s: 1B Brett Pill and 2B Brock Bond – The pitching staff was a big reason why the Defenders stayed in games all year, but the combination of Pill and Bond helped them win games, especially at Dodd Stadium in Norwich. Pill was the RBI King of the league, finishing with 109 on the season, the most by any player in the EL since perennial prospect Andy Tracy had 128 back in 1999. Pill does not have traditional size or power for the first base position, but his RBI totals and .320 batting average with runners in scoring position make him a legitimate threat. Bond, on the other hand, was the batting and on-base champion in the league finishing with a .333 average and a .429 OBP. He was such a pest offensively that he even had a 51 game on-base streak stretching two entire months earlier in the season. If the Aeros intend to hold back the Connecticut offense, they will have to stop these two record breakers first.
Akron’s Co-MVP’s: C Caros Santana and RHP Jeanmar Gomez - In celebrating the duo of Pill/Bond for the Defenders, I wanted to emphasize the season-ending award winners for the Aeros one more time. Pill broke EL records for his RBI, but Santana was right behind as he tied a franchise-record with 97 on the season and also had the most walks in the EL since 2004 with 90. Santana went just 3-for-12 in the divisional series but one player who proved his regular season was no fluke was Pitcher of the Year Jeanmar Gomez. The 21-year-old native of Venezuela started game two against the Phillies and delivered six quality innings of one-run baseball. In 23 starts this season including the playoffs in Double-A, Gomez has held opponents to one run or less 11 times and will be counted to do so again in the Championship.
Game One: Tuesday, September 15th @ 6:35 p.m. in Norwich, CT
Probable Pitchers: RHP Josh Tomlin (Akron) @ LHP Ben Snyder (Connecticut)
Game Two: Wednesday, September 16th @ 6:35 p.m. in Norwich, CT
Probable Pitchers: RHP Jeanmar Gomez (Akron) @ RHP Daryl Maday (Connecticut)
Game Three: Friday, September 18th @ 7:05 p.m. in Akron, OH
Probable Pitchers: LHP Craig Clark (Connecticut) @ LHP Eric Berger (Akron)
Game Four (if necessary): Saturday, September 19th @ 7:05 p.m. in Akron, OH
Probable Pitchers: LHP Ari Ronick (Connecticut) @ LHP Scott Barnes (Akron)
Game Five (if necessary): Sunday, September 20th @ 7:05 p.m. in Akron, OH
Probable Pitchers: RHP Garrett Broshuis (Connecticut) @ RHP Connor Graham (Akron)
(The photo above is via Karen Schiely with the Akron Beacon Journal and shows 3B Lonnie Chisenhall congratulating RF John Drennen after a home run against Reading in Game One of the Eastern League Divisonal Series against Reading. A tip also goes out to Tony Lastoria with Indians Prospect Insider for creating the list of probable pitchers and Aeros Media Coordinator Rob Sinclair for sending out the finalized schedule from the Eastern League.)