The challenge stands straight ahead. Time is running short on the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in the race to the Eastern League playoffs.
The Fisher Cats, in need of a winning streak, open a crucial three-game set against the Trenton Thunder tonight at 7:05 at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium. The teams play again on Saturday at 7:05 and on Sunday afternoon at 1:35.
Manager Gary Allenson's team entered Thursday night's series finale at the New Britain Rock Cats in third place in the Eastern Division, behind the Binghamton Mets and Trenton. The Portland Sea Dogs and Rock Cats were right behind New Hampshire.
Only the top two teams in the division qualify for the playoffs and the Mets are way out in front and the hot Thunder have opened up a sizable lead on the other contenders.
"We've got a shot," Allenson said on Thursday afternoon from New Britain. "It might be a little slim, but we have a shot."
The good news for the Fisher Cats is they get to face their challengers head-on.
Going into Thursday night, they trailed the Thunder by six-and-a-half games in the standings and Portland was another half-game back.
New Hampshire will try to cut into Trenton's lead in games tonight, Saturday and Sunday.
"If we were to win two, we'd only pick up a game," Allenson said. "We probably have to sweep and then we still need some help."
Right-hander Marcus Walden (6-12, 3.57 earned run average) goes tonight for the Fisher Cats with righty Marcus Stroman (6-4, 3.22) on the mound on Saturday night and lefty Sean Nolin (8-3, 3.01) on Sunday.
The Thunder, making their first appearance here since the first week of the season, have been on a roll. They took a six-game win streak into their game on Thursday night and have won nine of their last 11.
It doesn't help that the Fisher Cats took a roster hit on Thursday when outfielder Brad Glenn was called up to Triple-A Buffalo.
He contributed his team-lead 69th run batted in for New Hampshire in a Wednesday night win and made his Triple-A debut with a matinee splash: Glenn provided the only Bison runs with a two-run home run in a 4-2 loss to Rochester.
After Trenton, the Fisher Cats go to Portland for four games starting on Monday. They play four more games against the Sea Dogs — their last four home games of the year — from Aug. 26-29.
In all, they have 19 games left starting tonight. Only seven of those are at home. They also have four road games, including a doubleheader, at Reading from Aug. 23-25 and then close out with four games at Binghamton from Aug. 30-Sept. 2.
The Fisher Cats went into Thursday night's game looking to string together consecutive wins for the first time in four weeks.
They tied a franchise record with eight straight wins in mid-July and made it 11 wins in 13 games with a 4-3 decision over Harrisburg on July 22.
At that point, they had taken over second place in the division and were 10 games out of first.
Times have been tough since and they had gone 6-15 in their last 21 going into Thursday night and were 17 games out of first place.
The Fisher Cats won the opener of the series at New Britain on Tuesday, 5-4 in the first of a seven-inning doubleheader, but squandered a chance to sweep the night when the Rock Cats scored three runs in the bottom of the seventh for a 6-5 win in the nightcap.
New Hampshire bounced back for a 7-2 win on Wednesday behind a career night from righty Deck McGuire. He followed up an eight-inning effort in his previous start with his first nine-inning complete game, a six-hitter with six strikeouts and no walks.
"The best he's pitched all season," Allenson said. "He was in control the whole game. His fastball was down in the zone much better. It had some zip and they couldn't quite get to it. And his fastball was still at 91, 92 miles per hour in the ninth."