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Trenton Thunder pitching staff consistently baffles Eastern League

Joba Chamberlain
Joba Chamberlain, the 41st overall selection in 2006 bolstered Trenton's pitching staff with his 100 mph fastball before being promoted to Triple A. (photo courtesy Bill Cook/Trenton Thunder)

By Chuck King

TRENTON, N.J. – Trenton’s Tony Franklin walked through the underbelly of  Waterfront Park with the kind of easy smile reserved for managers confident in their pitching staff.

Night after night, his Thunder pitchers have provided plenty of reason for Franklin’s calm.

“I’ve told a lot of the managers in the league that they should be so blessed to at east once in their league have a staff like this,” Franklin smiles. “It’s a lot easier on your heart and your gray hairs.”

The game that followed Franklin’s comments offered a perfect example of why Franklin is so relaxed.

The score may look rather ordinary, but Trenton’s 6-3 victory over Binghamton on a rainy mid-July evening was pretty much a microcosm of the Thunder’s season.

New York Yankees major league pitcher Jeff Karstens was on the mound in the first inning for a rehab start, one of 16 pitchers to start a game for the Thunder this season. He struggled early to regain form. Binghamton scored a run in the first and threatened more, putting runners on second and third and just one out before Karstens slammed the door.

Karstens lasted five innings and the Thunder bullpen pitched four largely uneventful innings to notch another win.

“It’s an unbelievably talented group of guys,” said pitcher Alan Horne, who is currently second on the Thunder with nine wins despite a 2.36 ERA.

While Horne’s miniscule ERA is striking for a starter, it is pretty much the norm for Trenton’s staff. Despite the constant movement of pitchers threw the Yankees organization – 23 different pitchers have appeared for the Thunder so far this season – Trenton’s team ERA hovered around 2.60 until late July.

While the Thunder have benefited from a few major league rehabbers – along with Karstens, Roger Clemens and Phil Hughes both started for the Thunder – most of Trenton’s success has been home grown.

Jeffery Marquez, the only Trenton pitcher other than Horne to start 20 games this season, leads the Thunder with 11 wins despite having the massive ERA (by Trenton standards) of 3.15. Jason Smith and Brett Jones have both started more than 15 games, yet maintained sub-3.00 ERAs.

“We try to keep it simple, keep it in tune,” said pitching coach Scott Aldred, who is credited by many on the Thunder for the staff’s success.  “We’re pitching well as a group. Pitching can be just as simple as that if you allow it.”

The formula for Aldred’s staff isn’t complex. The starters pitch deep into games and a well-rested bullpen finishes off the job.

“Our pen has been great all year,” Horne said. “Every time they come in, they are slamming the door on the guys. When we hand a lead over to our bullpen, we fully expect to win.”

While members of the bullpen aren’t always pleased with the lack of work, they don’t argue with the results.

“When you are not pitching a lot you are always fresh,” reliever Scott Patterson said. “We kind of have a rotation going in the pen. We don’t like it, but the good thing about it is you are always fresh. It helps with the team ERA when the bullpen is not overworked.”

For much of the season the Thunder have been able to plug just about anyone into the rotation, although the likes of Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain are hardly no-names.

The two top pitching prospects in the Yankees organization joined the Thunder in early June. After allowing four earned runs in his first start, Kennedy never allowed more than two in any of his next eight en route to a 5-1 record and a 2.59 ERA.

Chamberlain, the flame throwing righthander who has Yankees’ bloggers wearing out their keyboards, allowed seven earned runs in his July 20 start to see his ERA balloon to 3.43.

Aside from that outing, Chamberlain been awing Thunder fans with his 100 mph fastball. Others, like Kennedy, have been wowing fans with their control.

“Everybody goes out and you are going to get something different,” said Chamberlain, the 41st overall selection in the 2006 draft. “I think that’s what makes it all successful because we all do something a little bit better than the next person. We all get better by going out and picking each other’s brains, and wondering how they go about getting a hitter out.”

Catcher P.J. Pilittere has been part of these conversations

“There’s a different level of competition sometimes and that’s what separates these guys the most,” he said. “The reason we have such a low team era is the way these guys have come out and competed every night, whether they have their best stuff or not.”

More often than not, Thunder pitchers had all the stuff they needed. Even with recent outings in which the Thunder surrendered 12, 11 and 13 runs during a late July five-game losing streak, Trenton’s 2.94 team ERA entering August trailed only Augusta (2.84) of the South Atlantic League for the lowest among full season minor league teams. (Five short-season teams have sub-3.00 ERAs, including the Gulf Coast Yankees.)

Kennedy and Chamberlain were recently promoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but Franklin still has plenty of arms to lean on.

“No question about it, we’ve put together some pretty good numbers together for the season as a staff,” Franklin said. “We’ve lost a couple and gained a couple. We’ve seemed to continue to go in a positive direction with it.”

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