TRENTON, NJ – We’ve become accustomed to some extra September baseball around these parts over the past several years.

          In fact, this space has often been devoted to a playoff preview and analysis at this time. This year’s Thunder club, which fell from 48-33 to finish 68-73, fell, to both manager Tony Franklin’s consternation, short of the postseason.

          Yet, there were three players BaseLines felt worthy of honors – outfielder Ray Kruml, Craig Heyer  and Addison Maruszak

BaseLine’s Choice For 2011 Thunder MVP – Kruml, who turned 26 during the season, put himself on the map with an excellent Double-A season.  Prior to his promotion to Triple-A Scranton, he batted .290 (131-for-452) with five homers and 35 RBIs in 114 games.

          He emerged as an excellent leadoff hitter and stole 37 bases in 48 attempts. He covered ground in the outfield, displayed a decent arm and had only four errors.

          “I just try to contribute and improve my game,’’ said Kruml, a native of Lisle, Ill.,  who played collegiately at South Alabama. “All I tried to do this season is make myself better.’’

          Some scouts will tell you Kruml has speed rivaling former Thunder star and Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner. He indeed was one of the fastest baserunners in the Eastern League and, if he has as a solid a season in Triple-A in 2012, could be looked to as an outfield reserve in The Bronx in the future.

          “My goal is to play like Brett,’’ said Kruml. “He’s become a big part of what the Yankees do.”

BaseLine’s Choice For 2011 Thunder Pitcher of the Year – Heyer, who  ended up making 24 starts for the Thunder, advanced his cause as well in 2011.

          After a 2010 season in which he first was a reliever, then a starter, helping the Class-A Advanced Tampa Yankees to the Florida State League championship, he became a full-time starter with the Thunder.

          The 25-year-old native of Scottsdale, Ariz., who played collegiately at UNLV, moved into the rotation early in the season when both lefty Manny Banuelos and righty Dellin Betances were sidelined by blister problems.

           He ended the season with a 10-9, 4.54 mark, with a few rough spots down the stretch. He may have tired a bit after pitching 146.2 innings, nearly 55 more than he had in any other season. His strikeout-walk ratio was 75-38.

           “My goal was to help our team in any way I could, whether starting or relieving,’’ said Heyer. “I had the confidence to do either. The season was a good step forward for me.’’

            Heyer showed a lot of grit. Chances are he’ll be back with the Thunder next spring, helping lead a staff that will no doubt include Brett Marshall and Jose Oquendo from Tampa.

BaseLine’s Choice For 2011 Thunder Utility Player of the Year– Maruszak, 24, came to the ballpark everyday with an upbeat attitude.

            The 24-year-old native of Piniellas Park, Fla., who played collegiately at his hometown University of South Florida, played wherever Franklin needed him. He appeared all over the infield, the outfield and caught a few games.

            Maruszak can play every position but pitcher, and likely would try that in an emergency. He batted .244 (84-for-344) in 108 games with the Thunder, along with spending a week at Triple-A Scranton.  He had many key hits, with an OPS of .726. He committed just eight errors.

            “I enjoyed playing here, and the atmosphere in our clubhouse,’’ said Maruszak. “ Where I play doesn’t matter and where I bat doesn’t matter. As long as I’m in there.’’

            Chances are good Maruszak will get a return trip to Trenton next spring. His versatility is a plus and, with a season of Double-A experience, could be a major factor for the Thunder next season.


            ABOUT THE SKIPPER: Franklin also likes the playoff atmosphere, having won a pair of Eastern League titles, and he missed that this season as well. A stickler for defense, he watched as his team committed a franchise-record 158 errors.

            “All those errors don’t translate into winning baseball,’’  he said, shaking his head.

           Franklin talked about coming back for a sixth season.  Waterfront Park isn’t Yankee Stadium, or Fenway Park, but it’s a pretty cool baseball spot. He enjoys working with younger players, the development process and the atmosphere in Trenton.

           “We’ll see what happens,’’ said Franklin as he always does at the end of a campaign. “If the Yankees want me to come back here, however, this is where I’ll be. It’s a darn good place to work.’’

            Franklin likely realizes he has become as much a part of the Thunder’s community fabric as anyone.


           THE OFFSEASON ARRIVES:  With the Thunder’s 2011 season concluded, BaseLines shifts into offseason mode, which includes the Arizona Fall League, Winter Baseball and other developments.

           BaseLines appears weekly on Comments are welcomed and suggested below, or at Follow on Twitter @jedleyq.

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TRENTON – Thunder manager Tony Franklin, given his duties during a game, rarely gets a chance to listen to the Thunder radiocasts, either on WTSR (FM 91.3) or the via the Internet.

            Tuesday night, however, Franklin spent part of the game in his Waterfront Park office, thanks to a difference of opinion on a ruling on the field resulting in his ejection.  So, he turned on the radio to see how his team was doing.

            Naturally he heard second-year Thunder broadcaster Jay Burnham.

            “You know,’’ said Franklin, “Jay is pretty good.  I had a chance to hear a lot of the game Tuesday night after I was ejected.  Without a doubt, I knew what was going on.’’

             Burnham picked up a major plaudit Tuesday, having been named 2011 Broadcaster of the Year by Ballpark Digest, a well-respected Web site that focuses mainly on Minor League Baseball.

             “I was stunned when I first heard about it,’’ said Burnham. “There are so many guys in so many places that work so hard in the minor leagues. I know them from the Eastern League, South Atlantic League and other places. I’m humbled.’’

            “It’s a nice honor.  It’s such a privilege to be working for an organization like the Thunder. It’s an exceptional situation.’’

             Burnham’s breezy style mixes well with 2011 partner Hank Fuerst’s more serious approach to the game. The two have been fun to listen to, and have a lot of fun and on-air chemistry working together.

             The Thunder radio booth, having produced Major League Baseball broadcasters Tom McCarthy (Phillies) and Andy Freed (Rays) is part of the tradition of the franchise, which has flourished since 1994.

             Burnham knows all about that.

             “It’s always stressed, in our broadcasting, who has sat in those chairs before,’’ he said. “We have a high standard. I’ve been lucky to work with partners like Justin Shackil (now a broadcaster for the Southern League’s Tennessee Smokies) and now Hank.

             “They have helped me become a better broadcaster.’’

            Ballpark Digest acknowledged Burnham calls a “mean game’’ and mentioned his Baseball Haiku, a form of Japanese poetry with which he often involves the media, but noted what separated him from other broadcasters considered was his off-air work.

            In the minors, a broadcaster is often not judged on his on-air efforts, but how he is in selling and bringing advertising dollars into the franchise. Many fans don’t realize, in the minor leagues in any sport, everybody in the front office sells.

           The Thunder, prior to the 2011 season, was searching for a new radio station. Burnham put together a proposal that worked for WTSR, the College of New Jersey station, and things worked out. The Thunder also has many games broadcast on WBCB (AM 1490) when the Phillies are not playing.

           “We needed a station, and I’m the Director of Broadcasting, so I thought it was my responsibility to arrange our broadcast package,’’ said Burnham.  “It’s falls under what I do.

           “WTSR has worked out great, and it’s a big plus to have our games on WBCB when there is not a conflict with the Phillies. We were really able to widen our listening audience.

           “I feel we’ve had a real good year on the radio and, again, I can’t credit Hank enough for his contributions.’’

           His 2011 highlights including calling Derek Jeter’s two-game rehab around the July 4 holiday – Burnham’s radio call was included in the HBO Documentary Derek Jeter 3K, and an on-air interview with Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, now a special advisor with the Yankees.

           Burnham knows the ropes, having called the independent Pensacola Pelicans, the Asheville Tourists and Hagerstown Suns of the Class-A South Atlantic League before arriving in Trenton.   

          “I am grateful to guys like (general managers) Will Smith, Kurt Landes, Larry Hawkins and (Thunder Director of Public Relations) Bill Cook, guys who always supported me throughout my career.  That type of support makes a difference.’’

          On top of that, Burnham has the Tony Franklin seal of approval, even if it takes an ejection for the Thunder skipper to tune in.


          NOT DONE YET: Franklin echoing Yogi Berra, basically told his club before Wednesday night’s game, which resulted in a 7-2 win over New Hampshire that snapped a seven-game losing streak, “You’re not out of it until you’re out of it.’’

          Eastern League playoff contention that is.

          Franklin feels, if his 65-70 team can win tonight, then sweep five games in New Britain over Labor Day weekend, they could sneak into the playoffs.

          “I told them to pack for New Hampshire (where the playoffs would start),’’ he said.

          It’s a tall order, with the team standing 3.5 games out of a playoff spot and having to jump both New Britain and Reading.


         FROM MAINE TO OHIO AND VIRGINIA:  Franklin said he would be glad to return for a sixth season in Trenton if the Yankees asked him … Two groups in Ottawa are looking to bring an Eastern League club to Canada’s capital. They also want to the club to be a Toronto affiliate.  A lot would have to be done to fit the pieces of that puzzle into place.

         BaseLines appears weekly on  Comments are welcomed and suggested below, or at Follow on Twitter @jedleyq.

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TRENTON – The Thunder return for their final homestand beginning tonight, eight games featuring four with New Britain and four with New Hampshire.
Our favorite team is stumbling toward the finish a bit, but there were some marvelous moments as far as the 2011 campaign is concerned:
• First was the fact Tony Franklin remained in the Thunder manager’s office. He’s been an all-time favorite and a steady hand. Whether he comes back for 2012 is unknown, but, should he choose not to, he will be missed.
• Lefty Manny Banuelos was a pleasure to deal with. He was 4-5, 3.59 in 20 starts with the Thunder. He takes nothing for granted and knows he has a “gift.’’ Don’t be shocked if the Yankees give him a September call-up.
• Righty Dellin Betances, who was 4-6, 3.42 in 21 starts with the Thunder, was another guy the media enjoyed talking to. He made no excuses if he had a tough game. His recovery from surgery has been remarkable.
• Outfielder Ray Kruml, who hit .290 (131-for-452) and stole 37 bases before advancing to Triple-A Scranton, kept getting better and better as the season went on. He put himself on the radar, and with his speed, could wear Pinstripes in a year or two.
• Utility player Addison Maruszak, like many of his teammates, found Double-A was a big step from Single-A. A versatile sort who can play every position but pitch, he was always upbeat. Chances are he’ll be back in Trenton in 2012.
• Outfielder Melky Mesa is another fun guy to be around. He also struggled in his Double-A debut and should get a return trip in 2012. A potential five-tool player, he still is looking to harness all that talent.
• So what if righty Craig Heyer had a tough outing the other night. He’s pitched well, making 22 starts and is 10-7, 3.88. He proved to be dependable and able to adjust. Also another great guy to deal with in the clubhouse.
• Also at 10-7, with a 4.40 ERA in 22 starts, is Shaffer Hall. There were some bumps in the road, but the man has talent – as well as quite the Twitter following from the Midlands.
• Righty Ryan Pope, who is 0-1, 2.16 in 19 appearances with the Thunder, is battling back, He has someone special on his side now in his wife, Charlotte, who brightens up the ballpark with her smile when she is in attendance.
• And aren’t those loyal gals from Staten Island around for fun and baseball fellowship, given their favorite, outfielder Austin Krum, is finishing the 2011 season in Trenton.
• The atmosphere at the ballpark again was a lot of fun, a spring and summer gathering place for all of us. That is due to the work of the Thunder front-office people, who make Waterfront Park that friendly place. As many of you know, I further developed that appreciation through my work with another major Trenton sports operation.
• The two games Derek Jeter rehabbed, drawing crowds of over 9,000 and turning Waterfront Park into a big-time media gathering. Here again, the Thunder staff did its usual great job in handling both local and national media.
• There was never a dull moment with the talented folks I share the Waterfront press box with when gathering information for this piece on a weekly basis. What a composite of Minor League Baseball knowledge.
• What fans are the most fun to watch at Waterfront Park? Try the little guys, who grow up to be bigger guys over the last dozen years, sitting with us in Section 6.
So maybe our favorites stumbled in the second half of the season. Maybe a playoff berth will elude them. For all of us, Waterfront Park is part of our community and our lives.
Next March, under Florida sunshine, it will start all over again. What would we do without it in the spring and summer? I’m glad that’s not a factor.
SWB YANKEES ON THE ROAD IN 2012: One advantage players returning to Trenton in 2012 will have over their Triple-A counterparts is a home field.
A decision was made to have the SWB Yankees play the 2012 season on the road while a $40 million renovation is done to their ballpark, PNC Field, in Moosic, Pa. International League president Randy Mobley would like the team to stay “within the International League footprint.’’
The way it looks, and a final decision will be made in September, is the club’s home schedule could be split among Rochester, Buffalo, Allentown and other IL cities when the home team is traveling.
This corner would love to see a series or two in Waterfront Park. The ballpark houses a Yankees farm team. Most players are familiar with the excellent facilities. The ballpark has a third clubhouse the team could use and, chances are, the games might draw fairly well.
Say SWB and Lehigh Valley met in a series in Trenton. The ballpark would be lively.
FROM MAINE TO OHIO AND VIRGINIA: The Akron Aeros are running a re-branding contest, with the Aeros moniker and four others – Gum Dippers – This has to do with impregnating tire cord with rubber, reflecting Akron’s heritage as a tire-producing region; Tire Jacks – Combine that tradition with an Akron team “jacking’’ the ball out of the park; Rubber Ducks – The team states this symbolizes the importance of rubber in Akron, the Tire City. It is also whimsical, which could catch on with fans and Vulcans – The name emulates power, also connected with the manufacturing of tires and other rubber-based products. For 2012, the Akron club could have a new nickname … Richmond will be playing in The Diamond at least three more seasons, as Richmond-area officials feel gathering funding for a ballpark that will open in 2015.
Baselines appears weekly on Comments are suggested and welcomed below, or at jed.weisberger3@gmail.som. Follow on Twitter @jedleyq.

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So here we are in the late stages of the 2011 season, The Thunder, once 48-33 and in first place in the Eastern League East, now sit just below .500 and are in a fight for the playoff.

Compared to what we saw over the last few seasons, this is a surprise. Thunder teams, more often than not, finish strong.  For several reasons, that will not be the case this season.

That leads one to believe the 2012 addition may look a lot like the 2011 edition, with many of this year’s players back for another try at the Double-A level.  This is due to the fact many could use another tour of duty in Trenton, coupled with the fact that not many Tampa players have proven themselves worthy of a promotion to Double-A.

We offer an analysis of who just might return next April:

1B Addison Maruszak – A great guy, this versatile player is hitting .248 (71-for-286).  He could play a number of positions, especially if Luke Murton, who is batting .283 (111-for-392) with eight homers and 59 RBIs advances to Trenton.

2B- Corban Joseph – Has had a solid offensive season, batting .263 (113-for-429) with 46 RBIs. Corban’s 21 errors are a concern.  Where he lands next season may depend on the condition of David Adams.  Kevin Mahoney could knock on the door next season.

SS – Jose Pirela – A total of 32 errors show defensive improvement is needed. Has 41 RBIs, but is hitting just .240 (100-for-417).  Neither  Carmen Angelini or Emerson Landoni have been overly impressive at Tampa. Both Pirela and Yadil Mujica will likely be back.

3B – Brad Suttle and Rob Lyerly – Suttle batted just .215 (70-for-326) and struck out 108 times before his injury. He also had 18 errors. Lyerly is hitting .244 (49-for-201) and has 15 errors himself. Both will likely be back here as well.

OF – Ray Kruml, Melky Mesa, Austin Krum, Zoilo Almonte, D’Angelo Mack and Damon Sublett – Kruml has had an excellent season, hitting .287 (125-for-436), committed just four errors and added 35 steals. He should advance to Scranton. Krum’s situation bears watching. Mesa has struggled and will hope to get back on track here in 2012. Almonte, Mack and Sublett all have shown talent at times, and could be with the Thunder in 2012.  Slade Heathcott’s injury probably has him starting at Tampa next spring.

C – Austin Romine – Despite a series of injuries, including a concussion, Romine has had an excellent season. Batting .285 (82-for-288), he has been lauded for his handling of pitchers.  Romine will battle for a spot in The Bronx next season before settling in at Scranton. Jose Gil could return as a veteran. Kyle Higashioka is superb defensively, but struggles at the plate.

DH – What of Cody Johnson, who hit 15 homers in Trenton, but struck out 138 times. He’s doing some retooling in Tampa and could return to add some power to the Thunder in 2012. He’s hitting .281 (25-for-89) with five homers and 14 RBIs in 25 games with Tampa. He has struck out 36 times.

SP – Expect lefty Shaeffer Hall and righty Graham Stoneburner back. Righty Craig Heyer has pitched well (9-6, 3.72) and will likely start in Trenton and eye a promotion. Lefty Jeremy Bleich could come back after surgery. Lefty Josh Romanski pitched well here – 0-1, 2.04 in 13 appearances – before being sent back to Tampa. Both Brett Marshall, a righty, and Jose Quintana, a lefty, have been solid in Tampa. Others could battle for spots likely vacated by Kei Igawa, Steve Garrison and Brad Halsey.

RP – Chase Whitley was good at times for the Thunder this season, and could very well be the 2012 closer. Pat Venditte showed advancement and likely will also be back. Righty Ryan Flannery, who attended FDU-Madison, is 3-0, 2.34 with 14 saves at Tampa. He had a cameo appearance with the Thunder this year and could be a key player next season.

Overall, it’s been a tough second half for these players, a group that could still right itself and earn a playoff berth.  Few had a lot of Double-A experience heading into 2011, which is why the feeling here is many will return in 2012.

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TRENTON, N.J. – Back on July 2, the Thunder, with Derek Jeter playing and 9,002 fans at Waterfront Park, scored a come-from-behind 4-3 win over the Altoona Curve.

As the team celebrated Corban Joseph’s game-winning RBI that drove in Damon Sublett, and settled into a postgame clubhouse feast provided by Jeter, manager Tony Franklin and his players had the satisfaction of a 48-33 mark and could look forward to a strong second half.

The team had settled into a rhythm, and with no other Eastern League East club really asserting itself, another division crown seemed to be on the horizon.

“We just have to keep doing what we’re doing, playing winning baseball and picking each other up,’’ said Joseph. “This is a good club.’’

All was indeed rosy then, but since that day, the Thunder, heading into Friday night’s game with Harrisburg, is 11-24, fighting to stay above .500 and is tied for second place with the Reading Phillies, a team it has finished its season series with, for the final playoff spot.

The picture has taken on a hue that is not the most pleasant. The club has fallen behind in many games, tried to rally and fallen short, having lost 8 of its last 10.“This is wearing on all of us,’’ said Thunder manager Tony Franklin.

Can this team, which played a spectacular first half of the season, recover and claim a playoff berth? There are teams in similar situations – even 2010 league champ Altoona – that have caught fire at the right time and won it all in the Eastern circuit.

On paper, the odds are against the Thunder. Following the weekend series in Harrisburg, the Thunder have a day off Monday before resuming their road trip against the Erie Seawolves.

The Senators are having a superb year at 65-51, featuring uber prospect Bryce Harper and a solid pitching staff. In their only other visit to Harrisburg this season, the Thunder were swept in a three-game series. A series win in Harrisburg could get the Thunder back on the right track.

Yet, while the Thunder have played exceptional baseball at home until the last few weeks, in fact, still holding a 35-23 mark at Waterfront Park, the road, for whatever reason, has been treacherous for this team. Franklin’s club will travel to Harrisburg with a 23-34 mark.

In addition, the Thunder are hitting .249 (935-for-3,873) as a team – 11th in the 12-team Eastern League – and have struck out an aggregate 985 times, the most in the circuit. Lack of timely hits in timely spots, a trademark during the first half of the season, have not been there.

The pitching? There have been rough spots, but a Team ERA 3.88 – sixth in the EL – is certainly acceptable.

Why? It can happen with young players. Three Thunder players, including Cody Johnson, who has since been dispatched to Tampa, have fanned 100 times or more.

Sometimes it takes awhile for such players to get into rhythm in the Eastern League, and shows what a jump it is from Single-A to Double-A.

Certain games have been decided by a misplay here or an error there.  When a team is not hitting on all cylinders, as the Thunder are not presently, those plays can make a team a bit snakebitten.

Following the Erie series, a very tough Bowie team visits. Then, the Thunder play three in New Hampshire and finish their home slate with an eight-game homestand featuring four games each with New Britain and New Hampshire.  Those contests will decide the Thunder’s playoff fate prior to the club’s season-concluding four-game road trip to New Britain.

Baseball was never meant to be easy, especially at the Double-A level. All an organization can hope for is consistent play and progress.

It appeared the Thunder were on their way to that just five weeks ago. Now, the road to any playoff berth is rather rocky.

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      Both the media and dozens of Thunder fans can recognize Dick Stanley when he attends a Thunder game at Waterfront Park.

       A baseball guy, academician, generous sort, consultant to industry and cancer survivor, Stanley has spent over $1.5 million of his own money to build a Little League Baseball program in Uganda.

       You may have read earlier in the week, in articles in The New York Times and elsewhere, that a team from a program Dick built, outside Kampala, Uganda’s capital, qualified for the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa., but is unable to attend due to visa issues.

        “It’s a shame,’’ said Stanley. “It’s a setback. I can understand the visa policy of the United States on documentation, but I don’t know how much documentation these kids have. And, if they have it, their stories, in talking to an American Embassy official, don’t match up with what a parent, if there is one able to be present, says.

         “The only way our kids will get to play in Williamsport is if President Obama or the State Department over-rides policy.’’

          Stanley first went to Uganda several years ago as a United Nations volunteer. He got the idea that baseball could advance the lives of young boys and girls (softball is a part of the program as well) in the East African nation.

          It has been a labor of love for Stanley, who has been a part of the Thunder franchise since it was located in Glens Falls, N.Y., over 20 years ago. He moved, as part-owner, with the team to first London, Ont., then Trenton.

          “Right now, I have a tiny, tiny part of the team ownership,’’ Stanley says with a smile. “I don’t go to league meeting like I used to.

           “I do, however, nearly 20 years after we came to Trenton, enjoy what I see every time I come here and how the fans enjoy the games and how the team has become a fabric of the community.  It’s amazing how Minor League Baseball has changed over the years.

           Stanley, who remembers when Bob Schaefer, a popular Boston farm director during much of the Red Sox (1995-2002) affiliation in Trenton, was his manager in Glens Falls, and how the Eastern League struggled.

          Then there was the Minor League Baseball “boom’’ in the late 1980s, which led to dozens of new parks, like Waterfront Park, and the game becoming big business.  He often offers his opinion on everything from baseball prospects to the state of the economy.

           Yet, even if opinions differ, he is a pleasure to be around.

           “I’m getting older,’’ he quips. “At this point, if you don’t agree with me, you have to live with me.’’

           Seriously, the difficulties he is having with getting the Ugandan team to the Little League World Series – certainly as big a goal for him as late Thunder founder Sam Plumeri’s seeing the Red Sox play play an exhibition game in 1998 – are hurting him inside.

            The man does know what the reality of the situation is – millions do after the excellent coverage by The New York Times – but he is hoping there is a way a group of players from Uganda, who would certainly benefit by a visit to the United States, could somehow get into the door.

            It’s not the money Dick has willingly spent in this case, it’s the feeling. Not only does he want the Ugandan youngsters to become more proficient at playing baseball, but to see a better world, add some reality to hope.

            “Did you see the other story in The New York Times?’’ he asked. “The one that was on the front page about the hospitals and the maternity wards and the shortage of physicians. That gave a look as to what it is like.

           “I know our team can compete in Williamsport because we have three excellent pitchers. We would give them a run for their money.’’

           As this was being written, that script did not seem to be in order.  Perhaps the door will be opened. Even if it isn’t credit Dick Stanley with forging a sports miracle in East Africa.

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TRENTON – Infielder Robert Lyerly quickly noticed one major difference between the Class-A Advanced Florida State League and the Class-AA Eastern League when he joined the Thunder June 21.

“In the Florida State League, I got used to 105 degrees,’’ said Lyerly, a native of Indian Trail, N.C., who was the Yankees’ sixth-round pick in the 2009 draft. “Then, when I got to Portland, where Trenton was playing that night, it was 58 degrees at game time.

“I guess that was the first of many adjustments I had to make.’’

The near 50-degree drop in temperature did not affect Lyerly that night – he went 3-for-5 and drive in a pair of runs after earning his promotion from Tampa with a 64-game effort that included a .315 (82-for-260) average, 16 doubles, five triples and four home runs, along with 46 RBIs.

And, playing mostly at first base, he has not stopped hitting, batting a solid .288 (40-for-139) with three homers and 20 RBIs. 

 The 24-year-old Lyerly is just one of several new faces – relievers Josh Romanski (left) and Chase Whitley (right) and outfielder Deangelo Mack – who have joined the Thunder (56-48) over the last few weeks and feel quite comfortable in their first exposure to the Double-A level.

“The way it is this year is there are a lot of opportunities for these players and, to their credit, they are taking advantage of them,’’ said Thunder manager Tony Franklin. “This is our job – development.’’

No doubt this is due to these young players’ focus, but also do to the fact that the 2011 Thunder clubhouse seems to be one of both determination and fun.

“What was nice for me was how welcoming the guys were when I came here,’’ said Lyerly. “It’s easy to see why we are winning with that attitude. I just hope that I can make sure we keep winning.

“You come here and you start forgetting everything about Tampa pretty quickly. I’m with a team battling for a division championship. The Thunder, who welcome the Richmond Flying Squirrels to Waterfront Park for a four-game series beginning tonight, are a game behind the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in the Eastern League East and a strong 34-16 at home.

 Lyerly has fit right in.

“I can see the adjustments I have to make here,’’ he said. “The pitchers are more accurate with all their throws and you will get a breaking ball when you are not expecting it. There are a lot of guys in this clubhouse and others, who are a phone call away from the majors.

 “There are some players I’m familiar with, and they have gotten better. I just hope I’m getting better with them. ”

After a strong career at UNC-Charlotte, Lyerly earned All-Star recognition at Class-A Charleston in 201o. He was named to the South Atlantic Postseason All-Star Team after batting .312 (157-for-503) with seven homers and 71 RBIs.

Less than a year later, he is settling in at Double-A. “In this league, there are some players with major-league experience,’’ he said. “You notice how guys like that do things, and you see what you will need to do. I’m really thankful for this chance, and I’m trying to make the most of it.’’

Adept at both first and third base, he gives Franklin more of the versatility that is spread through his 2011 roster.

“Position is not important,’’ Lyerly said. “Getting the chance to play is.’’

Focused and confident, Lyerly is, as Franklin said, one of those players who is making the most of his chance.

BaseLines appears weekly on Comments are welcomed and suggested below, or at Follow on Twitter @jedleyq

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