Fisher Cats set for Eastern League Championship Series

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400 Miles to Toronto: New Hampsire Fisher Cats ColumnWith three more wins, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats can return the Eastern League pennant to Manchester for the first time in seven years. Here’s a quick look back at how they got here and what’s coming up.

Around the Horn

Wednesday, Sept. 5 – New Hampshire 8, Trenton 0

Thursday, Sept. 6 – New Hampshire 10, Trenton 4

Friday, Sept. 7 – New Hampshire 5, Trenton 1

New Hampshire swept the Trenton Thunder this week in the Eastern League’s Eastern Division Championship Series (EDCS), marking the first time they’ve swept the Thunder in any series since April of 2015. However, saying the Fisher Cats’ EDCS win was just a sweep is a severe understatement.

After losing the regular season series to the Thunder, New Hampshire outscored Trenton 23-5 over their three wins this week. The offensive output wasn’t a surprise, the Fisher Cats averaged 4.5 runs a game in their previous contests against Trenton this year, just part of their amazing .271 team batting average against all Eastern League opponents.

Instead, the key to victory came from New Hampshire’s bullpen. In 12 innings in the EDCS, the bullpen allowed just one run. That’s a far cry from the eight runs New Hampshire gave up in the ninth inning alone back on August 2, an issue at the heart of the Fisher Cats’ slumps over the year.

Granted, the playoffs provide a chance for much more flexibility over the required inning minimum mandates put on relievers during the regular season, but Fisher Cats manager John Schneider believes the core of bullpen success lies in the starting rotation, including starter Taylor Saucedo’s spot long relief in Game 2 after Hector Perez faltered early.

According to Fisher Cats manager John Schneider, losing homefield advantage actually helped the Fisher Cats, as it created an extra day of rest at home between the Labor Day regular season finale against Hartford and Game 1, delaying the bus trip down to Trenton until they took two from the Thunder.

The Fisher Cats will have to travel to Akron for the first two games of the ELCS, which begins on Tuesday, returning home for Game 3 on Thursday. If needed, the fourth and fifth games will also be played in Manchester on Friday and Saturday, respectively.

Also this week, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. became the first player in Fisher Cat history to earn Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year Award, the first in the Blue Jays organization since 1991.

During his 61 games in New Hampshire this year, Guerrero had an eye popping .402/.449/.671 slash line with 14 homers, 19 doubles and 60 RBI. His RBI production during the first two months of the season was so outstanding that he continued to lead the league in that category for several weeks after a leg injury suffered in early June.

Guerrero earned promotion to Buffalo on July 31, posting a .336/.414/.564 line in 30 International League games.

Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins announced that Guerrero will not play in Toronto this season, although he expected to be the heir apparent at third base in 2019 following the departure of Josh Donaldson this month to the Cleveland Indians

Atkins denies allegations that the Blue Jays are delaying Guerrero’s promotion due to the “Super Two” rule, a collective bargaining mechanism that allows top young prospects hit arbitration early based on major league service time.

Fisher Cats of the Week

Batting: Harold Ramirez – In a year without Vlad, Ramirez may have had a shot at being league MVP. However, the EL’s 2018 batting champion didn’t let his overlooked year stop him from having a monster EDCS.

Over the series, Ramirez batted .636 with six runs, two extra base hits, three RBI and three walks.

Starting Pitching: Jordan Romano – He didn’t quite complete the sixth in the clinching Game 3, but ultimately he didn’t need to, the Thunder bats were that demoralized. Romano allowed just three hits before approaching his pitch count barrier, despite having to wait nearly four hours longer than expected to throw his first pitch of the night.

Relief Pitching: Tayler Saucedo – Saucedo was an up-and-down starter during the season, but he proved to be just what the Fisher Cats needed in long relief of Hector Perez in Game 2. There, he squelched Trenton’s momentum, allowing just two baserunners in 3 2/3 innings, giving New Hampshire’s bats time to build up what would be an insurmountable lead.

Roster Moves

The Fisher Cats’ roster remains the same heading into the ELCS as it did leaving the EDCS. Andrew Case, Justin Dillon and Francisco Rios remain on the disabled list, with Case and Rios unlikely to return.

Eduard Pinto, Juan Kelly and Ryan Hissey remain inactive among non-pitchers.

On Deck

The Akron Rubber Ducks clinched their divisional championship series on Saturday night, defeating the Altoona Curve three games to one, setting them up as the Fisher Cats’ final obstacle toward a title.

New Hampshire took two of their three games in Akron this season, dropping two of three to the Ducks a week earlier in Manchester.

Offensively, Akron leans on Andrew Calica and Tyler Kreiger, although Donaldson may potentially play in the series, currently on a rehab assignment for a lingering calf injury.

However, much like Trenton, Akron’s strength centers around its pitching, second in team ERA in the Eastern League this season, behind only Trenton. The staff is led by Eastern League ERA leader Jake Paulson and red-hot southpaw Sean Brady.