The Akron RubberDucks are the 2016 Eastern League champions after sweeping the Trenton Thunder for a third straight game on Friday, claiming a 2-1 victory on the road to bring home the title.
Nick Pasquale earned the victory for Akron in a battle with former Cleveland Indians top prospect Justus Sheffield, who earned the starting nod for Trenton with the Thunder’s season on the line.
The RubberDucks had one-out walks in the first two innings off of Sheffield, but could not score. A third walk on the night, this one leading off by Ivan Castillo, had much better results for Akron. Greg Allen bunted him over to second on a sacrifice and Castillo moved to third on a single by Eric Stamets. Jordan Smith put the ‘Ducks on the board with an RBI grounder to short, scoring Castillo to make it 1-0. With another runner standing at third and two outs, Nellie Rodriguez struck out looking to end the threat.
Pasquale had faced one over the minimum by the time the RubberDucks stepped back into the box in the fifth. The Akron right-hander gave up a walk to Dante Bichette Jr. with two outs in the second. Michael O’Neill was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double in the bottom of the third, and Miguel Andujar’s one-out single was negated on a double play ball from Mike Ford.
Allen’s legs earned Akron another run in the fifth. Sheffield started the inning, retiring Castillo on a fly out before he was lifted for former Indians reliever Anthony Swarzak. Allen singled to second, stole second, stole third, and scored on a sacrifice fly from Stamets in the perfectly manufactured run for the ‘Ducks.
In the bottom half of the fifth, the Thunder got on the board as Sebastian Valle homered to left with two down to cut the deficit to 2-1.
O’Neill singled to lead off the sixth for Trenton and would make it to third when Akron manager Dave Wallace went to his bullpen for Cole Sulser. A grounder to short stranded the tying run at third.
Akron threatened in the top of the seventh, putting two in scoring position with two outs after a walk by Mark Mathias with one out and a two-out double from Allen. Former ‘Duck reliever J.P. Feyereisen came on and struck out Stamets swinging to leave two on the bases.
The RubberDucks pitching staff continued to set down the Thunder with little issue in the latter innings, pushing their consecutive batters retired streak to 12 by the end of the ninth. Sulser worked a perfect two and one-third innings, striking out a pair before turning the game over to Louis Head. A strikeout of Tyler Wade started the inning before a fly to center by Dustin Fowler for out number two. Head then blew away Andujar with three straight strikes swinging to end it as the ‘Ducks claimed the Eastern League title.
In what was at times a tumultuous year for Akron, the RubberDucks claimed the series with three straight victories in the championship round. When considering the club lost several top prospects to organizational advancements and at times used a revolving door in the clubhouse with all of the traffic heading up to Triple-A Columbus and down to High-A Lynchburg, the title becomes all the more impressive for the Rubber City.
“Everything that a championship team is made of and a championship team does, we did,” said Wallace. “We got great starting pitching, we got great work out of the bullpen, we played great defense and we had some really timely hitting. That’s the reason why we are Eastern League champions.
“This means a lot because there are so many guys that had a hand in it,” Wallace continued. “I’m really proud of the staff, really proud of each and every player that was a part of this. They are just a really special group of young men, and this year is something I’ll never forget.”
The title is the first for Akron since 2012 and the fifth for the organization.
Eric Haase was named the MVP of the series. He was 3-for-9 in the three games against Trenton with a big grand slam and three walks. He had hits in each of the first six games of the postseason for the ‘Ducks until his 0-for-3 on Friday, but with a walk, he reached base safely in all seven games played. He was 7-for-25 (.280) in the playoffs with five walks, a homer, and seven RBI.
Trenton was held to four hits in Game 3, with O’Neill getting two of them. Sheffield took the loss on the mound, allowing a run on two hits in four and one-third innings. He struck out five, but was hurt by four walks in the contest.
Pasquale worked five and two-thirds innings of one-run ball, allowing four hits and a walk while striking out three. Sulser and Head were perfect, retiring ten in a row with four strikeouts. Stamets and Smith paced the offense with one run batted in a piece, while Allen set the table with two singles, a double, and two gigantic stolen bases.
Akron ended the year as one of the hottest teams across all minor league levels. They won 21 of their final 26 games just to get into the playoffs, then went 6-1 in postseason play to cap off their remarkable run to the title.