In its 19 year history, the Altoona Curve have produced plenty of top talent for the Pittsburgh Pirates, made the playoffs eight times and reached the championship series twice. Still, they are searching for their first title.
This year, they may have an edge, and it’s not just because they have a 2-0 series edge against Bowie. A good chunk of this year’s squad has already won championships in the lower levels of the Pirates’ farm system.
“It’s the best time of year,” infielder Kevin Kramer said. “That’s your goal at the beginning of the year: to play your best ball at the end. The teams I have been on have done that.”
Kramer was part of the 2016 Bradenton team that won it all in 2016 and the 2015 West Virginia Power team that reached the Northern Division championship. 12 current Curve players finished last season on Bradenton.
Right fielder Michael Suchy feels the experience they picked up last year is helping now.
“Guys aren’t shying away from wanting the ball or wanting in the box,” Suchy said.
Suchy is excited for the opportunity to play in a home playoff game again, but knows they aren’t the only game in town.
“I know Pitt’s playing Penn State, so we’ll see what type of turnout we get,” he joked.
Kramer, Tolman ready to fill in for Tucker
The Curve were dealt a major blow Friday when Cole Tucker left in the second inning. Saturday, his season came to an official end after being diagnosed with a left hand fracture.
“It’s not fun, that’s for sure,” Tucker said. “…I’ll be here, cheerleading.”
Fortunately for the Curve, Saturday will mark the return for Kevin Kramer, who has not played in Altoona since early June. Ironically, he is returning from a hand fracture as well.
“It took a little bit longer than expected, but it’s ok,” Kramer said. “It’s a good time to get back.”
Kramer played four games between the Gulf Coast League and the Black Bears, going 3-15. He will DH Saturday, but is cleared to play the field.
Pablo Reyes will slide over to shortstop, and Mitchell Tolman will take over at second, batting leadoff. Tolman only had 11 plate appearances at the AA level before the playoffs. He has produced immediately, though, going 4-9 with an RBI in each of the first two games against Bowie.
“It’s definitely nerve wracking, a little bit, going out there with a new team and all,” Tolman said. “You don’t want to be a guy that comes up, they see you, and it’s like, ‘aw, crap.’ You don’t want want to be a negative effect to the team at all. During the games, I’ve been trying my best to go out there, play my game, be competitive and not worry about results too much.”
It’s taken him awhile to get going, but Michael Suchy has turned it on late in the season.
The 2014 fifth round pick struggled in his first year in AA, slashing .200/.273/.288 with a 33.8% strikeout rate. Hamate surgery slowed him down, but now that he says he’s healthy, he hopes to contribute more.
In game one, Suchy recorded a hit and made an impressive diving catch to preserve the no-hitter at the time. He went 3-5 with a home run, a double and three RBI in game two.
He also boasts a six game hitting streak.
“It’s not just me. The games in front of me are putting me in good situations to hit,” Suchy said. “They’ve been working the pitcher every inning.”
1st: Great start for the Curve. Austin Coley tosses a scoreless first inning and gets a pair of runs in support. Tolman walks and advances to third on a Reyes single during a hit and run. Kramer drives home Tolman and Jin-De Jhang brought home Reyes, both on sacrifice flies. 2-0 Curve
2nd: Coley probably owes center fielder Elvis Escobar a beer tonight. He’s made a pair of running catches so far that have robbed the BaySox of doubles. 2-0 Curve
3rd: Coley has been sharp early. Seven first pitch strikes out of 11 batters and five outs on three pitches or less. 2-0 Curve
4th: D.J. Stewart puts Bowie on the board with a solo shot to right-center. Coley got ahead in the count, but Stewart worked it to 3-2. The Curve got it back when Jhang tripled home Suiter. Bowie right fielder Cole Billingsly collided with the wall on the play. He has been removed. 3-1 Curve
5th: Coley works around a leadoff double, escaping with his two run lead. Reyes homers off reliever Jordan Kipper. 4-1 Curve
6th: The Curve are running away with this one. A two run homer by Mathisen makes it 6-1. Altoona has scored in three straight innings. 6-1 Curve
7th: Coley muscles through the seventh. He threw first pitch balls to all five batters he faced and needed a line drive double-play to get the inning under control. He helped his own cause by covering first base on the inning ending 4-1 ground out. 6-1 Curve
8th: Coley’s night is done. 7 innings pitched, one earned run, six hits, one walk and three strikeouts. Tanner Anderson retires the top of the lineup in order. 6-1 Curve
9th: Break out the brooms. Anderson works around two infield singles to close the 9th. Curve win 6-1.
Pop the champagne
As the champagne and beer started flying in the clubhouse, outside, the girlfriends and wives of the Curve players joking asked one another: “Don’t they get tired of celebrating like this?”
“Just winning is something we’re used to, and we don’t want to get tired of it,” winning pitcher Austin Coley said with his socks and shower shoes dripping to form a Michelob Ultra puddle.
Bowie had Altoona’s number all year going into the series, winning 14 of their 19 contests, but that did not discourage the Curve. Seven of those losses were one run games.
“They didn’t blow us out a lot, so we had a lot of confidence going in,” Coley said. “I give a ton of credit to Mitch (Keller) in that first game…it really set the tone.”
Pitching was the theme of the series. Bowie scored four runs or more in 12 of their 19 meetings against the Curve. They only scored four total in the series.
Keller’s one-hit shutout in game one set the pace.
“After that game, it deflated their sails a little bit,” Keller said. “Then we kept our foot on the gas pedal and powered through it.”
The defense also came to the starters’ aid. Center fielder Elvis Escobar made a pair of running catches in the first two innings that were so impressive, Coley only had a one word description for them: “stupid.” First baseman Jerrick Suiter also turned an unassisted dobule-play, and Coley himself made a head’s up read to cover first base after Suiter dove and missed a ball. Second baseman Mitchell Tolman would get to it and record a 4-1 putout for the final out of the seventh and Coley’s night.
“The game could have been a lot different if they don’t make some of those plays,” Coley said.
Altoona will now play in their third Eastern League championship in franchise history.
“We put your whole spring training and season into being able to celebrate like this,” Mitch Keller said. “Hopefully we can do it one more time.”