The Curve cannot have a winning season. They've lost five out of six and scored only seven runs total in those games. They have the second-worst record in the league. And they're now off on eight-game road trip.
These are indeed the dog days of August for the club, and the final 12 games of the season will be a great test of the mental toughness of each and every player on the team.
On the surface, there's nothing really to play for since the team is 12 games below .500 - one game off the low point of the season - and needs to run the table to break even. But in professional baseball, saying there's nothing to play for is never, ever the case.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Altoona Curve skipper Carlos Garcia watches his team from the dugout Wednesday night.
"The work is going to be done, no matter how many games out we are," Curve manager Carlos Garcia said. "And they understand that, and they know that [giving in] won't fly on my watch. So they've got to be prepared, they've got to be ready to play."
The Curve didn't look ready to play Wednesday night and got clobbered by Reading, 8-0, before 7,630 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field. The Fightin Phils came into the four-game series with the Eastern League's worst record, but it was the Curve who looked like the league's worst team in losing three of four in the series.
Altoona was shut out the final two games and hasn't scored in 21 2/3 innings. The offense has been strong for most of the second half of the season, but collectively the hitters have gone into a funk with the schedule winding down.
"It's not like you can look out there in the game and tell someone's given up," said second baseman Jarek Cunningham, who went 3-for-4. "Everyone's still playing hard, and you can tell."
The results haven't shown up on the scoreboard, however, as the Curve offense has looked as bad in the past week as it did during a dreadful first half of the season. There might be only 12 games left, but that's 8 percent of the season, so those 40-50 at-bats will go a long way in determining where the hitters end up statistically.
"You don't want to give any at-bats away and look back on the season and say, 'Wow, I didn't give it everything I could to be in the position I wanted to be in,'" Cunningham said.
That did happen, Garcia said, early in the game Wednesday after the Curve got down 7-0 through four innings. Starting pitcher Nate Baker (3-3) gave up four runs in the third and three in the fourth, and Garcia saw his hitters going up to the plate without a good approach and just swinging at the first pitch.
"We tried to hit five-run homers when we don't have anybody on base," the manager said.
"I see a team a little bit desperate right now, swinging at too many pitches out of the strike zone," Garcia added. "Probably in the back of their mind they want to maintain their numbers and try to be a little careful rather than go up there trying to have a quality at-bat."
There were some quality at-bats as the hitters looked more patient later in the game, but the offense still couldn't find a way to score. Reading starter Bobby Bramhall (1-3) gave up only two hits in six scoreless innings, and two relievers combined to finish off the shutout.
"It's getting down to the last couple of weeks, so we've just got to stay on ourselves and keep grinding and keep that concentration the whole time," first baseman Justin Howard said.
The challenge of staying mentally tough, Howard added, has nothing to do with the fact that the team is out of the playoff race.
"It's just being in August and we've been playing since March, so our bodies are tired, our mental focus is tired," Howard said. "It's a point of, hey, coming to the field I'm going to take my at-bats, I'm going to separate them, I'm going to try to do the best I can every AB, I'm going to try to do the best I can on defense."
That's the approach, regardless of the record, that Garcia will demand of his team during the final 12 games.
"We will finish strong, that's for sure," Garcia said. "There's no doubt about it. When I say we will finish strong, I don't mean we're going to win the rest of the games. We're going to play with energy, we're going to up there, we're going to prepare."
SUBHD: Game recap
Key player: Reading 3B Maikel Franco went 3-for-4 with a homer, two RBIs and three runs.
Key play: Reading pounded LHP Nate Baker for four runs in the third inning and three more in the fourth.
Key stat: The Curve have scored only seven runs total in losing five of their past six games.
SUBHD: How they scored
Top 3rd: Hanzawa singled, scored on Murphy single (0-1); Franco singled, scored on Dugan groundout (0-2); Hewitt double scored Dugan (0-3); Duran single scored Hewitt (0-4).
Top 4th: Hanzawa singled, scored on Franco two-run homer (0-6); Murphy solo homer (0-7).
Top 6th: Franco doubled, scored on Hanson error (0-8).