EL Playoffs: The plot thickens for NH, Trenton

Fisher Cats' Bo Bichette scoops up a grounder during a game in May against the Reading Fightin Phils in Manchester.

MANCHESTER — The Eastern League Eastern Division Championship series between the New Hampshire Fisher Cats and Trenton Thunder has the makings to be quite the battle. That expectation stems from not only the talent each team carries, but also the familiarity between the two teams.

Tonight’s 7 p.m. opener of the best-of-five playoff set at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium will be the 18th meeting of the season between the Fisher Cats and the Thunder. The link between the teams goes deeper, though, as both managers and a slew of players matched up in last year’s Florida State League Championship. Fisher Cats manager John Schneider and 10 Fisher Cats represented the Advanced-A Dunedin Blue Jays while Trenton skipper Jay Bell and nine Thunder players were in the Tampa Yankees’ dugout.

“It’s cool facing guys that you’ve seen before and know,” said Schneider before a team workout on Tuesday. “I think we’ll be ready for whatever comes our way. It’s just going to come down to who executes, which is what playoff baseball is all about anyway.”

Trenton not only edged New Hampshire 9-8 in the regular-season series, but that mark ultimately made the difference in the Thunder vaulting the Fisher Cats for the regular-season division title. The Thunder are riding a 10-game winning streak heading into tonight’s opener while the Fisher Cats, who clinched their playoff spot ahead of their final 10 games, finished 5-5 in the same stretch.

“We had a little bit of an exhale from our guys there (to close the regular season) knowing we’d be playing in the postseason,” Schneider said. “To me, all bets are off starting (tonight). The off day comes at a good time for us and it plays to our favor with them. Sometimes when a team is playing well, you want to break up that routine. I’m glad they’re on the bus first and had the long travel day up here.”

New Hampshire reliever Kirby Snead, one of the 10 Fisher Cats who played in last year’s Florida State League Championship, backed Schneider’s sentiments about New Hampshire’s preparedness.

“I think it’s just something where we’ve been ready to get this thing going,” Snead said. “Honestly, I didn’t even know how we finished in that stretch. You obviously want to play better, but it’s not a big factor for us. We played good baseball the last two days, but sometimes the results don’t go your way.”

New Hampshire will host the first two games of the series tonight and Thursday before things shift to Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton, N.J., for the final three games, of which the last two will be played if necessary. The opening pitching matchup will be T.J. Zeuch for New Hampshire while Trenton will counter with Brian Keller.

The battle between New Hampshire’s league-best offense and Trenton’s league-best pitching will be what many will have an eye on. Keller has been reliable for Trenton all year with a 3.74 earned run average, but his ERA jumped to 5.55 in four starts against New Hampshire this season.

“He actually threw the first game in the Florida State League series last year and we started off real hot with five runs in the first inning,” said Fisher Cats outfielder Connor Panas, who clubbed two homers in the decisive third game of the Florida State League Championship series. “It just shows you anything can happen in the playoffs. You have to stick to your approach, be confident at the plate and trust everything you’ve worked on through the year to get you to this point.”

Panas will be one of a handful of New Hampshire hitters that will be expected to continue the offense’s year-long fortune. Schneider said his team thrives when Eastern League MVP and Rookie of the Year Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Eastern League batting champion Harold Ramirez are on their game. Third baseman Jon Berti, tonight’s projected leadoff man who has 18 hits in his last 35 at-bats, will be the key to the offense, according to Schneider. Another name to watch is outfielder Josh Palacios, who was assigned to New Hampshire from Dunedin on Monday after leading the Florida State League with 78 RBIs.

On the other side of the ball, Zeuch tossed seven innings of five-hit ball in his only start against Trenton, which produced a 4-0 New Hampshire win on July 1. The righty finished his first Double-A season with a 9-5 record to go along with a 3.08 earned run average and 81 strikeouts over 120 innings in 21 starts.

“T.J.’s numbers speak for themselves and he’s a guy that can pitch in the zone, getting outs with his fastball and the way it sinks,” Schneider said. “You like him because he can go deep into games and that really sets up your bullpen how you want to at the start of a series. The magic number for me is always five innings and he has the ability to get through that and more.”

The bullpen features reliable arms like Snead, Danny Young, Dusty Isaacs, Zach Jackson and Travis Bergen to come to the rescue for Zeuch or any Fisher Cats starter. Bergen, New Hampshire’s closer, will be a big factor late in games as he gave up just two earned runs in 35 2/3 Double-A innings, including 5 1/3 scoreless innings to go with nine strikeouts against Trenton.

Schneider admitted he won’t wait long to go to the bullpen if his starters can’t get the job done. Snead and the rest of New Hampshire’s relievers are ready to have their number called at any time and in any situation.

“Our staff has done a great job of giving us practice for that during the regular season,” Snead said. “We’ve seen the close games and worked matchups. There’s no nerves or anything after playing 140 games so far. They should be all out of there.”