Neither the Akron Aeros nor the Trenton Thunder made the Eastern League playoffs in 2011, but this season is a case of déjà vu all over again.
Last year's anomalous absence notwithstanding, Akron (representing the Western Division) and Trenton (representing the Eastern) have long been accustomed to being at the top of the EL standings. The Aeros appeared in the Championship Series each and every season from 2005-09, winning two EL titles along the way. However, the Aeros' sustained run of Double-A dominance was marred by back-to-back Championship Series losses to these very same Trenton Thunder. The Thunder dispatched the Aeros in both 2007 and '08, and again returned to final round in 2010 (ultimately losing to Altoona).
Here we are again, with both on the threshold of glory. The blazing Aeros, owners of the Eastern League's best regular-season record, rallied from a 2-0 hole against Bowie in the Division Series on the strength of three closely contested victories within the friendly confines of Akron's Canal Park. The rolling Thunder, meanwhile, rattled off three straight victories over Reading after losing the first contest in the best-of-5 series.
Akron (Western Division Champions, 82-59) vs.
Trenton (Eastern Division Champions, 79-63)
The two teams split the season series, 6-6
Game 1 at Akron, Sept. 11 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 2 at Akron, Sept 12 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3 at Trenton, Sept. 14 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 4 at Trenton (if necessary), Sept. 15 at 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 5 at Trenton (if necessary), Sept. 16 at 4:05 p.m. ET
There's a lot of history between these two clubs, to be sure, but the only history that truly matters when assessing the ever-fluid world of Minor League Baseball matchups is that of the most recent variety. The two teams split the season series, 6-6, going 4-4 against one another in Akron and 2-2 during the one time they met in Trenton (May 21-24). Given the small sample size, prolonged pursuits of playoff prognostication often prove fruitless. But special consideration should be given to what could be a decisive Game 3, as Akron's T.J. House will go up against Trenton's Mikey O'Brien. House won both of his starts against the Thunder this season, compiling a 2.63 ERA over 13 innings. But O'Brien was no slouch either, ending up with a 1-1 record and 3.00 ERA in 12 innings pitched against the Aeros.
And, technically, House won't be Game 3's starting pitcher. That honor goes to rehabbing Cleveland Indians reliever Carlos Carrasco, who will toss the first frame before ceding to House (a similar arrangement occurred in Sunday's series-clinching win over Bowie, with Carrasco tossing a scoreless inning before giving way to Brett Brach).
Carrasco's brief starting assignment is an "only-in-the-Minors" playoff curiosity, but the situation on the back end will be far more routine. Ryan Pope was installed as the Thunder closer in August (a position he had also held in part of 2010 and 2011) and went on to collect eight saves in the regular season as well as two more in the semifinal series against Reading. Meanwhile, Aeros closer Preston Guilmet has emerged as a dominant force. The postseason All-Star tied for the Eastern League lead with 24 saves, converted both of his opportunities in the semifinal series against Bowie, and struck out five batters over three scoreless innings of work against Trenton this season.
As for the offensive side of the equation, the Aeros boast a formidable 3-4 combination in the form of Chun-Hsiu Chen and Jesus Aguilar (both of whom serve as first basemen/designated hitters). The former finished fifth in the EL with a .308 batting average, getting on base at a .393 clip and pacing the team with 30 doubles. As for Aguilar, he combined to hit 15 home runs and drive in 71 runs this season, with most of the damage occurring at Class A Advanced Carolina. The Venezuelan native was a participant in this year's Futures Game.
Conversations about Trenton's potent offense must start with versatile infielder Addison Maruszak, at least if you're moving through the lineup alphabetically by first name. Maruszak's breakout campaign included 16 home runs and 59 RBIs, and he then went on to blast two more homers in the semifinal series against Reading. Another force to be reckoned with comes in the form of outfielder Zoilo Almonte, who hit 21 home runs and drove in 70 during the regular season. His bat has thus far been quiet in postseason play -- but for how long?
Tony, award winner: No matter how the Championship Series plays out, the 2012 season has already been a triumph for Thunder manager Tony Franklin. The veteran skipper has been named the Eastern League manager of the year, an honor that many circuit observers thought had been long overdue. Franklin managed the Thunder to an EL Championship in both 2007 and 2008 and this past June notched his 1,000th career victory within the professional ranks.
The Cream rises: No matter who emerges triumphant in this series, 2012 marks the sixth straight season in which the Eastern League Championship was not won by a Wild Card team (the first and second place club from each division makes the playoffs, with the second-place team designated the wild card). The last wild card team to win the league title was the Portland Sea Dogs, who in 2006 dispatched -- who else? -- Trenton in the semifinals and Akron in the finals.