“The hard work, the dedication, the brotherhood that you guys have built is unbelievable and second-to-none,” Altoona Curve manager Michael Ryan said to his team inside the home clubhouse after sweeping Trenton Thursday night. “You are champions for the rest of your life, nobody can take that away.”
Once Ryan’s speech ended, a liquid mixture of champagne, beer, water, and sweat filled the room and deservedly so, Altoona had just won their second Eastern League Championship, their first since 2010, in dominant fashion.
It was a far from easy road for the Curve to take home the championship, and much like the roller coaster sitting beyond the right field fence, the season had its fair share of twists, turns, ups, and downs. Ryan guided the ship through the injuries to Kevin Kramer, Brandon Waddell, and Cole Tucker. He steered the team through the promotions and call-ups of Montana DuRapau, Jordan Luplow, Edwin Espinal, and Kevin Newman.
“Mikey’s a bad-ass and he leads us. It’s so much fun to play for him. He’s all about doing things the right way. He always talks about if you go about things the right way, this game will reward you,” Tucker said of his manager.
“That’s what we do, all 25 of us, we go to work every day and work hard and it shows. we’ve beat the Yankees two years in a row in the championship, so that’s pretty sweet.”
The Indiana, PA-native willed his players into believing in his next man up mantra and it showed throughout the season. When one guy got called-up or hit the disabled list, it was someone else stepping into that role and filling it admirably.
Just need to get the call
Case in point, Mitchell Tolman. Tolman was ready to head home after a long season in Bradenton, but before he could do that, he got a call he was needed in Altoona.
“Mentally, I was just telling myself to grind through and get through the last couple games we had in Bradenton,” Tolman said. “I’m really happy that things didn’t work out the way I thought they were going to.”
It was Tolman’s three-run homer in the bottom of the 12th inning on the last day of the regular season that proved to be the spring board into the playoffs for the Curve.
“I was just excited to get to come up and contribute with some of these other guys.” Tolman said of his impact.
Altoona is the smallest market for a professional team in all of sports. Ryan, the hometown guy, captivated a community throughout the summer. Ryan brought another championship to an organization that had gone without one since 2010 and ended the franchise’s first twenty years on an incredibly high note.
To be able to win the championship and win it at home for someone who lives only 45-minutes away from the ballpark was special not only for the manager, but for the team and the community.
“Whenever I was told I was going to be coming to Altoona, in the back of my mind I was thinking how great would it be for a local guy to bring a championship here, not only for all the people who work here, for all our players, our organization, but mostly our fans,” Ryan said. “Our fans were unbelievable this year, they willed us to so many wins. Tonight was just spectacular.”
From inside the locker room
RAW Audio from a victorious Altoona Curve locker room following their Eastern League Championship victory.
-Manager Michael Ryan
-SP Mitch Keller
-INF Kevin Kramer
-INF Cole Tucker
-RP Johnny Hellweg
Dominant pitching leads the way
The Curve ended their Championship season riding an eight-game win streak and did not lose a game in the playoffs. Boosted by one of the most dominant starting rotations in recent memory, Altoona dispatched of Bowie rather easily in the first round.
Curve starters went an incredible 6-0 in the playoffs with an even more outstanding 1.66 ERA as a group.
“You get starting pitching like that, you’re going to be hard to beat,” Ryan said. “You get timely hitting, grit in the box, and we’re dumping champagne right now.”
To get past Trenton would be a daunting task, the Thunder roster loaded with top-prospects of the New York Yankees, had spent the entire season atop the Eastern League Eastern division standings.
The Curve won game-one 2-1 boosted by Brandon Waddell going six shutout innings before Luis Heredia and Tanner Anderson shut the door in the last three innings. In game-two, Altoona chased highly-touted pitching prospect Justus Sheffield out of the game with an out in the fifth inning after notching four hits and two runs off him. Taylor Widener was next to get chased after only an inning as he gave up two more runs on three hits.
J.T. Brubaker went eight innings giving up two runs, one earned, en route to his game-two victory, once again giving the Curve bullpen a well-deserved rest leading into the series-clinching games being played in Altoona.
In the championship winning game, it was phenom Mitch Keller who took the mound looking to follow-up on his first playoff outing where he threw nine shutout innings in 90 pitches.
A blast to the warning track by Dante Bichette, Jr. in the second inning for a double put a runner on early for Thunder and they followed it up with a controversial hit-by-pitch on a bunt to get runners on first and second to start the inning. Abiatal Avelino sacrifice bunted to move the runners over to second and third before Zack Zehner grounded out to score Bichette, Jr. and record the second out of the inning.
Keller went onto retire the next 14 Thunder hitters and finished the game with eight strikeouts. Keller, who was named Eastern League Playoff MVP exited with one out in the eighth inning giving way to Johnny Hellweg.
Hellweg started the season in independent baseball searching for a team that would hopefully take a flyer on him as a pitcher and see where it got him. About a month ago, with a bullpen decimated by fatigue, the Curve signed Hellweg and the rest is history.
“When I got here, I knew I was going to be challenged,” Hellweg said after the game.
Hellweg promptly walked the next hitter on four straight balls before inducing a dribbler that allowed catcher Jin-De Jhang to step on the plate for a force out.
“That was definitely a challenging situation especially not being as honed in as I’d like to be. I was confident knowing I had these guys behind me to make a play,” Hellweg said of the situation in the eighth.
It was Jhang who played the hero role three innings earlier hitting what proved to be a game-winning three-RBI triple to put the Curve up 4-2 and give Keller the run support he needed.
Bichette, Jr. grounded into a force out to end the threat in the eighth and get the Curve one inning closer to a victory.
Tate Scioneaux got the ball in the ninth inning and painted a masterpiece with the Trenton lineup. Scioneaux, the Fireman of the Year for Altoona, got three swinging strikeouts to end the game and clinch the championship for the Curve in front of an electric home crowd.
A special group
The core group for the Curve have been together as they’ve risen up in the ranks from being signed and drafted to where they are today. They’ve experienced success at nearly every level, in 2015 in with the Single-A West Virginia Black Bears, in 2016 with the Single-A Bradenton Marauders, and now this year with the Double-A Altoona Curve.
Seven members of the Curve were on the Black Bears squad that took on the Staten Island Yankees in the New York-Penn League Championship and won 2-0. A total of 16 members of the 2017 Altoona squad were a part of the championship team in Bradenton last year that took down the Tampa Yankees in the Florida State League Championship.
Ryan guided last year’s Marauders squad to the Florida State League championship and knew coming into this season, the team in Altoona could be special and win another championship.
“I knew it was a possibility. We had such a great group last year, we had a bunch coming up that won the championship in Bradenton so I knew we had a chance,” Ryan said.
Repeating is never easy, but this year was made even more difficult with the multitude of injuries and call-ups experienced this summer.
“With the turnover this year, you wondered if we were gonna get in, but it’s a testament to those guys, they battled, they wanted it so bad.”
Development is key in the minors but winning is also vital to the success and development of players both on and off the field. It’s also something not taken lightly by Curve players.
“It means we’re doing the right things as an organization. It means we’re doing something right,” Tucker said. “It’s a testament to how hard we work, the way we play the game, and how we do things.”
Kramer was with the West Virginia Power while the Black Bears were doing their winning in 2015, but was able to be a part of the Bradenton team that won. It was doubtful he’d even be back in Altoona following a broken hand that derailed his season, but with an injury to Tucker it meant he was back with the Curve and with this group of players.
“It’s definitely special, I mean for me, getting hurt and getting away from the team, it was just one of those things where you’re more grateful, more appreciative,” Kramer said. “It’s a special group, great relationships, great friends, and great buddies that we’ve played together now for three years. Having a history with them, being in the playoff hunt with them in 2015, winning it in ’16, and now winning it in ’17. It’s just an awesome team, awesome clubhouse and awesome staff.”
Where do they go from here?
The off-season is now upon Altoona, some players will be heading to Arizona for the Arizona Fall League, some will be heading home with wives and families, and others will be back in Florida getting ready for next year, but for now, it’s their time to enjoy being a champion.
“Enjoy each minute of this, this is unbelievable and it does not get old,” Ryan said in his last few moments of being dry. “Let’s do this again next year!”