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'Pronk' powers Akron into EL Finals

'Pronk' powers Akron into EL Finals

It would be hard to blame the Bowie Baysox if they felt a little cheated.

While it's not rare to have a Major Leaguer rehab in the Minors, it's not all that common to have one join a Double-A club in the playoffs.

But that's how Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner ended up in an Aeros uniform for the last two games of the best-of-5 Eastern League semifinal series, hitting crucial home runs in each contest to power Akron into the Finals.

"It goes both ways, but I know how they must feel,'' Aeros manager Mike Sarbaugh said. "They fight all year long to get here, and [Hafner] made a difference in these two games, that's for sure. I feel for them."

Hafner, who has been on the disabled list since May 31 with a right shoulder strain, hit a two-run shot in his first at-bat Saturday that sent Akron on the way to a 5-1 victory over Bowie. In Game on Friday, he smashed a grand slam in the Aeros' 6-2 triumph.

Hafner spent a half-hour in the trainer's room before joining his new teammates in celebration in the home clubhouse that was plastered in clear plastic as players sprayed champagne and beer at anything that moved.

"Hafner! Hafner! Hafner!" went the chant while the giddy Aeros shook the remaining bottles of bubbly over his head. When they ran out of the good stuff, they went to beer. And when that ran dry, someone brought chocolate milk out of the nearby refrigerator to ensure the party continued.

"First and foremost, the best thing is there's no six-hour bus ride tonight back to Bowie," said winning pitcher Frank Herrmann, who held the Baysox to one run on three hits without a walk over seven innings.

Herrmann (1-0) was referring to the fact that an Aeros' loss would have sent the series back to Bowie for a decisive Game 5. Instead, Akron closed it out in four.

And as much as Hafner played a part for the second consecutive game, a Baysox starter struggled with his command early. After retiring the first two batters, Chris Tillman walked Matt LaPorta and dished up the homer to to Hafner as Akron took a 2-0 first-inning lead.

Tillman recovered to set the side down in order in the second but ran into a jam again in the third. Brandon Chaves worked a leadoff walk, Josh Rodriguez singled and Bronson Sardinha followed with a fielder's choice before LaPorta shot a laser back up the middle that smacked Tillman on the hand and forced him from the game after only 2 1/3 innings.

With the bases loaded, Ryan Keefer hit Hafner with a purpose pitch on the foot with his first offering to force in a run, then threw a wild pitch that scored Sardinha.

By the time LaPorta hit a one-out homer in the fifth, the game was all but over.

"That's not the first time to do it over here," said Bowie manager Brad Komminsk, a former Aeros skipper. "We did it with Greg LaRocca way back in the day. It didn't sit good then and it really doesn't [now]."

LaRocca homered in a 4-3 loss to Altoona in a 2003 playoff series on the road to the Aeros' first championship -- with Komminsk in the dugout.

"This time of year, [short-season] Mahoning Valley is still playing," Komminsk added. "I know [Indians farm director] Ross [Atkins] said they want to put him at the highest level, but for me, the highest level is the big leagues. And for a team that's 10 games out and has no chance of winning, he could have done it just as easily there."

The EL Championship Series, a rematch between Akron and the Trenton Thunder, begin Tuesday at Canal Park. Thursday will likely be a travel day before the series shifts to Trenton, which swept Portland in the Northern Division Finals, for the final three games.

Stephanie Storm is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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