Thunder roll to repeat performance
Trenton goes back-to-back to earn Double-A Team MiLBY
For the 2008 Trenton Thunder, the Eastern League affiliate of the New York Yankees and Best Double-A Team MiLBY Award winner, the celebratory scene was familiar and yet wonderfully different.
A year after capturing its first-ever Eastern League title at Akron in 2007, Trenton got to pop the champagne in front of 3,000 cheering fans at Mercer County Waterfront Park as the circuit's first back-to-back champion in over a decade.
The Thunder's 86-54 overall record featured their second-most wins since moving from London, Ontario, following the 1993 season. Since then, Trenton has been with the Tigers, the Red Sox and finally, starting in 2003, the Yankees.
The club started 2008 slowly and did not claim the Northern Division lead for good until May 3.
When the playoffs arrived, only a few players remained from the previous season's championship club. One was outfield prospect Austin Jackson, who had been promoted from Class A Advanced Tampa just before the 2007 postseason began.
This year, however, Jackson was Trenton's starting center fielder and viewed by many as one of the top prospects in the Yankees system. He responded by hitting .285 with nine home runs, 69 RBIs and 19 stolen bases and added two key homers, seven RBIs and some great defense during the postseason to earn playoff MVP honors.
"The first time I was there I was just trying to play a role, whatever they needed me to do, to help in any way I could," said Jackson, a 21-year-old Texas native who was the Yankees' eighth-round pick in 2005.
"The second time I was there the whole time and I got to see the majority of the pitchers, so once we got to the playoffs I kind of knew more what to expect. And that was fun."
Also contributing to the Trenton effort, despite missing two months with a facial fracture, was second baseman Kevin Russo, who batted .307 in 71 games.
"The whole year it seemed like the other team would score and we'd come back and score more," Russo said. "Or on days we weren't hitting, our pitching would be great. On days our pitching wasn't so good, our hitting would be great. For the most part, it all fell into place."
The Thunder had their share of personnel changes. Top outfield prospect Jose Tabata was lost to the DL in early summer and never returned after being traded to Pittsburgh in the deal for outfielder Xavier Nady. Other names, big and small, moved through Trenton via promotions or rehabilitation stints, but the chemistry among the stalwarts remained strong.
"We just had to get over them," Jackson said. "We knew each other from day one and we felt if we just came out and left it on the line every day, we would have a chance to repeat."
Russo concurred. "Everybody on this whole team was friends, and within the first week we were all so comfortable with each other, we'd hang out on the field and off the field," he said.
"We'd be joking around and playful, but on the field we were serious. I think that loose atmosphere contributed a lot to our having such a consistent winning percentage throughout the year."
Among the pitchers who led the team to the playoffs were southpaw Phil Coke, whose 2.51 ERA in 118 innings ranked second in the Eastern League, and Jason Jones, who went 13-7 and was among the league leaders in wins and ERA (3.33).
As in 2007, the Thunder's first-round opponent was Portland, an affiliate of the rival Boston Red Sox. Trenton swept the Sea Dogs in three one-run games, 2-1, 4-3 and 5-4, to earn a rematch with the Southern Division champion Aeros.
In Akron, Trenton split the first two contests, taking the opener, 3-1, before falling to the Aeros, 13-10, in Game 2. Back in New Jersey, the Thunder won Game 3, 4-1, before claiming the crown with a 5-1 victory on Sept. 14.
While Jackson got the award for playoff MVP, other big contributors included outfielder Colin Curtis, who hit .414 in the postseason, and pitcher Eric Hacker, who went 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in 11 2/3 playoff innings.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to Trenton's back-to-back championship seasons, however, was manager Tony Franklin. A veteran of several decades in the game, Franklin came to the Yankees organization in 2007 after spending more than 10 years as the Minor League instruction coordinator for the San Diego Padres.
Franklin is much beloved by his players, who respect and appreciate his trust in them to play the game the right way.
"He is a great, laid-back guy who doesn't say much unless he sees you slacking," Jackson said. "He likes to watch players develop more than he wants to get into guys' faces. He'd rather see how you react to situations. It was fun playing for him."
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.