The Rocket City Trash Pandas put the Rocket in Rocket City often throughout the 2021 season, blasting off to the tune of a Double-A South best 152 home runs in their inaugural season. Many of those came at just the right time to turn a game around, or to write a new chapter in an old record book.
In the fourth article of our Season In Review series, here is Part 1 of the top 10 hitting performances from the 2021 Trash Pandas season. In case you missed them, click here to read Pitching Part 1, click here to read Pitching Part 2, and click here to read Hitting Part 1.
5 – Sunday Slams Smoke Tennessee – May 16
Following a loss in their inaugural home game at Toyota Field on May 11, the Trash Pandas went on a run, reeling off four wins heading into the series finale on Sunday afternoon. In the first day game at Toyota Field, the Trash Pandas got the lead in the second inning when Ibandel Isabel broke his slump with the first grand slam in Rocket City history, a towering drive to left for his first homer of the season and a 4-2 lead.
From there, the teams traded runs as the game went to extra innings tied 6-6. Isabel tied it 7-7 in the 10th with an RBI single to keep the game alive. The visiting Tennessee Smokies restored the lead 8-7 in the 13th inning but turned to catcher Erick Castillo on the mound after exhausting their bullpen. Facing an array of slow pitches, Rocket City tied the game on a Michael Stefanic single with the bases loaded. Two hitters later, David MacKinnon crushed a walk-off grand slam to left, capping a thrilling 12-8 win to give Rocket City five wins in six games during their first home series. Isabel went 2-for-5 with five RBI while MacKinnon also had two hits including the game-winning grand slam.
“To get on the board with Isabel’s grand slam and to end the game with David’s grand slam, that was really nice,” Manager Jay Bell said. “As you look at the box score, it’s not pretty. But it was a great group of guys that battled as hard as they could and they outlasted their opponent.”
4 – Didder Does It All In Doubleheader Sweep – August 19
Ray-Patrick Didder began the first game of a doubleheader on Thursday, August 19 with a double to left in the bottom of the first inning, igniting a three-run rally to give the Trash Pandas an early lead over Chattanooga. Heading into the sixth inning of that game, the Trash Pandas led 5-1. But a five-run Chattanooga comeback turned the score in the Lookouts favor. In the seventh, the Trash Pandas put the tying and winning runs on base as Didder stepped to the plate as the final hope for the home team. With one swing, he turned a loss into a 7-6 win with a walk-off double to the gap in right-center, setting off a raucous celebration on the diamond and in the crowd.
Following a long rain delay in between games, the second game was a pitcher’s duel. Rocket City’s Cristopher Molina and Chattanooga’s Ricky Salinas were each throwing zeroes to start the late nightcap. On the first pitch of the bottom of the sixth inning, Didder did it again with a 398-foot solo home run to left to break the scoreless deadlock. That would prove to be the deciding run when Connor Higgins earned the save around midnight. The pair of one-run wins were crucial in keeping the Trash Pandas in the playoff race late in the season.
3 – Martinez Mashes Three Homers In Career Night – May 7
Just four games into the season, outfielder Orlando Martinez smashed his way into the record book with a game to remember.
Rocket City outfielder Orlando Martinez got off to a rough start over his first three games, going just 1-for-11 to start his Double-A career. With one monstrous night in Chattanooga, that would all change in the fourth game of the year on May 7 at AT&T Field. In the first inning, he launched his first home run of the season, a two-run blast to right-center, giving the Trash Pandas the lead. Two innings later, Martinez got home run number two with a high drive that cleared the right-center field wall to restore the Rocket City advantage. In the eighth, Martinez hit home run number three, a long two-run blast that down the right field line for a 10-5 lead in a game the Trash Pandas eventually won 12-10. Martinez added a double to finish 4-for-6 with a career-high three home runs and six RBI. Both of those totals would stand as season-highs for a Rocket City hitter.
2 – Aviles’ Amazing Home Runs Top Biscuits – July 8
Luis Aviles Jr.’s 2021 season was not going to plan. After just one game at Triple-A Salt Lake in May, he was injured and spent over a month on the injured list. When he got healthy, Aviles was sent to the Trash Pandas to receive regular playing time. He struggled during his first road trip with Rocket City, but flipped the switch at Toyota Field. In his home debut on July 6, Aviles homered twice in a loss.
Just two days later, he topped his impressive debut. Leading off against Montgomery on July 8, Aviles battled through a nine-pitch at-bat before launching the final pitch from Easton McGee over the fence in left for his second leadoff blast in three days. In the bottom of the ninth with the game tied 4-4, the Trash Pandas put two on with two out to give Aviles a shot to win the game. He did just that, crushing a three-run walk-off home run to left, setting off another wild celebration and becoming a fan favorite. The bookend blasts marked a season highlight for Aviles, who finished the series with six home runs in five games to earn Double-A South Player of the Week honors.
“As soon as I hit the ball, I knew it had a chance to go out,” Aviles Jr. said that night. “It was a big moment for me and my teammates. Winning a ballgame like that late in the game means a lot to all of us. It gives us that extra energy to keep going the next day to try and win another ballgame.”
1 – Trash Pandas Rewrite Record Books In 26-3 Rout – August 8
The number six moment on this list was a 14-2 win at Chattanooga on August 7 that marked the highest run total for the Trash Pandas up to that point. About 15 hours after wrapping up the Saturday night triumph, the Trash Pandas picked right up where they left off on Sunday afternoon.
Luis Aviles Jr. crushed the first pitch of the game over the left field wall to start the latest romp, and it would get out of hand quickly. Four runs in the first were immediately followed by three in the second. In the third, the biggest offensive inning for Rocket City on the season added eight to the total, capped by Izzy Wilson’s two-run homer, and made it a 15-3 game, giving the Trash Pandas their highest run total for the season after three innings.
Brendon Davis joined the fun with a solo homer in the fifth and Aviles added to his incredible day with a towering three-run blast in the seventh to make it 22-3. The home runs marked Aviles’ third multi-homer game of the season for the infielder who went 4-for-5 with five RBI.
Ray-Patrick Didder’s two-run blast in the eighth tied history before Davis added an RBI single in the ninth to bring the score to 26-3, the eventual final.
The 26 runs broke a long-standing Double-A South/Southern League record for runs in a single game, breaking the previous mark of 25 set by Memphis against Nashville on August 1, 1993.
Additionally, four Trash Pandas scored four runs, breaking the mark accomplished most recently by that same Memphis club on August 1, 1993. Rocket City blasted 15 extra-base hits (10 doubles, five home runs) in the win to break the record of 13 previously set by Jackson against Mississippi on July 11, 2012.
Individually, Wilson went 6-for-7 in a career day with a double home run, four RBI, and two stolen bases. The six hits by Wilson tied the league record for hits in a game as he became the 15th player in Double-A South/Southern League history to set the mark.
Safe to say, these records will be tough to match in the future.