The seven-game road trip that followed the All-Star break was not at all kind to Curve pitchers.
The Altoona staff had a 7.52 ERA during the stretch and allowed at least nine runs, three times.
With a struggling young bullpen and a rotation nowhere near as productive as it was early in the season, the Curve put a couple changes into place Thursday to try and regain that effectiveness.
Mirror file photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Jared Hughes’ struggles have led the Curve to move him from the starting rotation to the bullpen.
Righty starter Bryan Morris was skipped in favor of do-everything pitcher Derek Hankins, and Tony Watson will take Jared Hughes' spot in the rotation. Despite sitting in a tie for the league lead in wins, Hughes has struggled recently, losing each of his last four decisions.
Manager Matt Walbeck acknowledged the problems on the mound, and also noted some of the injuries and roster moves the Curve have faced. Relievers Jeff Sues and Anthony Claggett are both on the disabled list, and Diego Moreno was sent to Single-A Bradenton following a suspension for "unprofessional behavior."
"It just seems like one thing after another," Walbeck said. "Right now we're certainly not throwing the ball as well as we should, but that doesn't mean we need to worry or do anything outrageous. We just have to continue to prepare."
Pitching coach Tom Filer said Morris will return to his normal spot in the rotation Tuesday in Erie. Morris has pitched 103 innings with Bradenton and Altoona this season, marking the first time in his career he has reached the century mark.
"He's thrown a lot this year," Walbeck said. "That definitely has something to do with [skipping him in the rotation.] Also, we feel that he's just a little bit fatigued right now."
In his last three starts, Morris has allowed 14 earned runs in 12 2/3 innings. Despite missing his turn, Morris has gone through the same routine as if he were making the start, Walbeck said.
As for Hankins, who took Morris' spot Thursday, both Walbeck and Filer said an eventual move back to the pen would be likely.
"We're not sure how long Hankins is gonna be in that role," Walbeck said. "When Morris comes back, we're gonna make another move obviously to try and fit him in that starting rotation."
The Watson move, Walbeck said, is more long-term.
He will make his first start on Sunday in the series finale against Trenton and said while he is excited for the opportunity, he will remain focused.
"Whatever they ask me to do, I gotta take the ball and give our team the best opportunity to win," Watson said. "I'm starting, I gotta take the ball and go out there and help our team win."
Opponents are hitting .173 against Watson, who has a 1.84 ERA in 25 games.
"He's been pitching so well," Filer said. "He's been keeping the ball down, he can change speeds, he can get you out in different ways, and against left handers he's been doing really well. I just expect all that stuff to continue to the starting rotation."
Watson was a starter last year, but lost most of the season to an elbow injury. When he did pitch, Watson was shaky, going 0-3 in five outings with an 8.22 ERA.
"You don't change a whole lot," Watson said of moving to the rotation. "I've been going three innings out of the bullpen. You've gotta be efficient with your pitches and also try and save that bullpen."
Hughes will be available as a part of that bullpen either today or Saturday, Filer said. Hughes called the move, "a good test for me."
Filer said he thought pitching out of the bullpen could add two or three mph on Hughes' fastball, which currently is clocked around 90.
He added that he sees Hughes' future as a reliever.
"I see his arm slot and I see his sink and I see his size," Filer said, "and I think he's a guy that can really adapt to that role."
The Curve hope the changes can help a staff which has dropped to third in the Eastern League in ERA despite sitting in first for most of the season. In total they have a 5.51 ERA, more than two runs higher than in any other month.
"There have been a lot of struggles," Hughes said. "But I think the big thing is just staying positive and focusing on working hard."