After falling behind two games to none in the first round of the playoffs last week and having to fight their way back with three consecutive wins to advance, the Aeros took a different tact against Trenton in the Championship series that began Tuesday.
Led by the solid starting pitching of right-hander Paolo Espino, the Aeros cruised to a Game One win in the Eastern League Championship Series at Canal Park to keep their winning ways going.
Espino survived a shaky start before settling in to hold visiting Trenton scoreless on two hits over seven innings to earn the win.
“When we lost the first two games (of the Western Division Series) in Bowie, everyone was kind of down,” Espino said. “But as soon as we won (Game Three) here, everyone started coming back. Now, everybody is playing more relaxed and I think we have a good chance to win the series.”
Tuesday’s turning point came in the fourth inning when Trenton threatened to break a scoreless tie by loading the bases without the aid of a hit. Struggling to establish his command, Espino had walked two and hit a batter with just one out.
But after a brief mound visit by pitching coach Tony Arnold, Espino settled down and was able to get out of the jam unscathed.
“Tony came out and calmed me down,” Espino said. “I think I was in a rush, trying to go too quick. It helped. I took a deep breath, tried to control myself and got two ground balls to get out of it.”
Afterwards, Espino gave up just one hit the rest of the way. The bullpen continued the solid pitching theme, as right-hander Shawn Armstrong earned the hold with a hitless eighth and closer Preston Guilmet worked the ninth for his third save in the playoffs.
Center fielder Tyler Holt admitted a portion of the team’s laid-back approach to the big game was simply a carry over effect from winning their last three games.
“We don’t feel stressed, we don’t feel pressure, we don’t feel we have to win,” Holt said. “We just come in loose ready to play….Honestly, now we’re just doing the same thing we’ve done all season.”
Riding the momentum of Espino getting out of the jam, in the bottom of the fourth inning the Aeros used back-to-back hits by Holt and Chun Chen to spark a two-run lead that broke the scoreless tie.
With one out and runners on first and second, two wild pitches by Trenton right-hander Brett Marshall allowed Holt to score the first run of the game. Despite a fly ball to shallow right field, Chen managed to score on the Matt Lawson sacrifice, just beating the throw home as he slid around the swipe tag attempt by Thunder catcher J.R. Murphy.
Marshall, a mid-season EL All-Star making his 29th start of the season, led the league with 13 wins and finished fourth in innings pitched (15 1/3). But he’d struggled over his previous six outings, going 1-4 with a 6.62 ERA.
Marshall ran into trouble again in the sixth. The speedy Holt led off with a triple, then promptly scored on Chen’s RBI-double. However, Chen was thrown out at third while trying to stretch the hit into a triple.
“I think (the luxury of having home field advantage) is in the back of our heads,” said Holt, who went 2-for-3 with two runs scored. “We obviously know from experience that the road is tough to play on.”
The championship series continues tonight with Game Two at 7:05 p.m. at Canal Park. The Aeros are scheduled to send RHP Danny Salazar (0-0, 3.38 ERA in the playoffs) to the mound to face Trenton LHP Shaeffer Hall (0-0, 0.009 ERA).