Altoona Curve set to face Trenton for Eastern League supremacy

The journey to get to the Eastern League Championship has been vastly different for the Altoona Curve and Trenton Thunder, but both teams will be ready when ‘Play Ball’ is yelled.

To get to this point, the Altoona Curve has relied on a multitude of players who’ve made an impact both for the entire year and since being called up; some highly touted, others not.

Trenton, on the other hand, has capitalized on a bevy of highly ranked prospects both offensively and on the mound as well as a potent offense to lead the Eastern League Eastern Division for the entire season.

Both the Thunder and the Curve dispatched their division series opponents rather easily to get to the championship round. Trenton took down the Binghamton Rumble Ponies 3-1 in their opening round scoring an average of 5.25 runs per game while scoring nine twice. Their pitching staff allowed 2.75 runs per game against the Rumble Ponies with their last two victories seeing them allow zero runs and one run respectively.

For Altoona, they overcame an opponent who haunted them throughout the regular season in Bowie, sweeping the Baysox 3-0. In three games, the Curve pitching staff allowed only five runs while scoring a total of 16 to get past Bowie rather easily.

Stud pitching on display

Pitching has been the key factor for the Altoona Curve this season and their arsenal of pitchers with big game experience is second-to-none this post season. Trenton’s pitching staff has been no slouch either this season boasting a plethora of highly-ranked pitching prospects on their roster.

Dillon Tate, the no. 14 pitching prospect according to MLB Pipeline, will face off against Brandon Waddell in game-one Tuesday evening. Tate was roughed up in his game-one start against the Baysox lasting only three innings and giving up four earned runs on five hits in the process. Tate also walked four and struck out six finishing with an ERA of 12.

Waddell brings a boatload of big-game experience to the mound for the championship series pitching in two post-season games professionally as well for the University of Virginia in the 2015 College World Series. In those starts, Waddell is 1-0 throwing 13 innings and giving up only three hits. He’s also struck out 11 in that time frame.

Insert Kevin Kramer. Yes, that Kevin Kramer, the one who most thought would be done for the season following breaking his hand during the middle of the summer. Kramer, fresh off the DL came in and promptly notched a sacrifice fly that scored the first run of game-three.

J.T Brubaker takes the mound against no. 5 MLB Pipeline pitching prospect, Justus Sheffield in game-two. Brubaker did not appear in the divisional series, but last season picked up a victory in the game that clinched the Florida State League championship for Bradenton. In three career post-season starts, Brubaker is 2-0 with a 1.00 ERA.

Sheffield was stellar in his four innings of work against Binghamton in round one allowing no hits, no runs and striking out three in the process. Picking up the win in game-three for the Thunder was no. 16 pitching prospect Taylor Widener, recently called-up from High-A. Widener threw 5 innings of no-hit, shut-out baseball to notch the win and the combined no-hitter.

Will Carter takes on the Pirates’ top pitching prospect Mitch Keller when the series comes to Altoona Thursday for game-three. Keller has been lights out in his appearances of late going all nine innings in game-one against Bowie and doing so with only 90 pitches. The right-handed Keller allowed only one hit while striking out four in his nine innings of work.

Carter was dominant in his outing as well, throwing 6.1 innings of work while allowing only a single run. Carter gave up three hits but managed five strikeouts during his start in game-four.

While the starters for Trenton for games four and five have yet to be announce, you might have noticed two pitchers who threw in the sweep not getting a nod in games one through three. Fear not, even though these games are if necessary, Alex McRae will toe the rubber at Peoples Natural Gas Field in game-four while Austin Coley will be on the mound for game-five should the series get that far.

McRae threw game-two against the Baysox going six innings striking out three and allowing four earned runs on four hits. The righty could not get away from the long-ball giving up two during his six innings of work.

Coley has been one of the most dominant pitchers in the EL down the stretch and nothing changed in game-three as Coley closed Bowie out in his seven innings of work. Allowing six hits, Coley allowed only one run while striking out three.

Offensive prowess

Both teams have zero regard to opposing pitcher’s feelings as they seem to be able to score at will while at the plate. For the latter part of the season, Cole Tucker paced the Curve offense from the leadoff spot, however, in game-two went down with a broken hand and saw his season come to an abrupt end.

Insert Kevin Kramer. Yes, that Kevin Kramer, the one who most thought would be done for the season following breaking his hand during the middle of the summer. Kramer, fresh off the DL came in and promptly notched a sacrifice fly that scored the first run of game-three.

The runner he plated, none other than Mitchell Tolman who has made his presence since being called up from Bradenton known with authority. It was Tolman who launched a walk-off three-run homer to end the regular season and launch the Curve into the playoffs on the last day of the regular season.

Tolman hit .417 in the series against Bowie notching two RBIs and scoring a run during the series.

As for the Thunder, they currently have five hitters who hit .400 or above in the Divisional Series. Jeff Hendrix and Dante Bichette, JR. both hit .400 for Trenton against Binghamton while Rashad Crawford and Zack Zehner hit .429 and .462 respectively.

No. 18 prospect Thairo Estrada though, dominated at the plating notching an impressive .500 batting average in the four-game series and hitting for the cycle in game-two. Estrada accounted for five of the 21 runs Trenton scored against the Rumble Ponies and knocked in five runs on eight hits

Head to head

Altoona went 5-8 against the Thunder in the regular season going 1-2 against them at Arm & Hammer Park where games one and two will be held Tuesday and Wednesday. At home, the Curve fared marginally better with a 4-6 record against the Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees.

Series outlook

For the Altoona Curve to win their second Eastern League Championship in team history, the Curve will need to rely on their pitching staff to continue what they’ve done all season: get ground balls and control the game. If the staff can do that, the Altoona offense should be able to hold up their end of the bargain.

Shutting down Estrada at the plate will be imperative to keeping Trenton off the board. The Thunder have been dominant all season thanks in large part to the Yankees replenishing their farm system, but the games with the Curve have been close throughout the year.

Altoona does not have an easy task in defeating Trenton, but the Thunder also don’t have an easy task in beating the Curve especially with both teams on tears coming into this series.

If Altoona can split at Arm & Hammer Park, they have an even greater chance to win the EL Championship. Going down 2-0 before coming home will be an uphill climb to win three straight games.

First pitch is scheduled for 7:05 pm tonight.

 

Jarrod Prugar

Jarrod Prugar is 5 and a half feet tall and you can’t teach that. Jarrod grew up watching future Pirates light up the Eastern League for the Altoona Curve before going off to Robert Morris for college.

Jarrod also covers Penn State for the Pittsburgh Sporting News. Ban the DH!