Rolling Thunder nip Curve
The highest above .500 the Curve have ever been was 30 games, near the end of the terrific 2004 season when they finished 85-56, won the division and reached the Eastern League Championship Series.
How good is the Trenton team that’s in town this weekend? Well, the Thunder improved to a whopping 38 games over .500 by edging Altoona, 6-5, Friday night before 3,802 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field.
The Curve dropped back out of first place in the Western Division and now trail Bowie by half a game.
Trenton (77-39) is on pace to win 93 games, an enormous total during a 140-game minor league season. Furthermore, the Thunder have the best record in the minor leagues since the start of the 2016 season, going 164-94 (they were 87-55 last year).
“They expect to win every night,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said of the Thunder. “It’s fun for that, you walk through the doors and expect to win.”
As good as Trenton is, Altoona has played very competitively head-to-head. The Thunder are 7-3 in 10 matchups, but five of their wins have come by just one run.
Given that one team is 38 games over .500 and the other is only four over, there hasn’t been a whole lot of separation between the clubs on the field.
“They take that next step, it seems like, and they’re able to stop damage,” Ryan said of the Thunder. “I’m not saying that we expect something that’s going to go wrong, it’s just that they have the utmost confidence in each other, and they expect to win. I don’t know if our guys do that.”
Ryan then was asked if there’s enough time left in the season for his players to get on a roll and start expecting to win every single night.
“It’s up to them,” Ryan said. “We’ve got good players. It’s the mindset. We’re in every game, but sometimes we just fall a little short.
“It’s can we get that one spark play that will get us going to where we can get five or six guys going at the same time in the lineup? Can we get three or four bullpen guys that will shut it down? Can we make the three or four defensive plays in a row that might not lead to big innings? That’s what we have to get, and it seems like that one play that’s not going our way is the difference.”
The Curve appeared to be out of Friday’s game down 6-1 in the fifth inning. But they charged back, getting a three-run triple from Anderson Feliz in the fifth to make things interesting.
Wyatt Mathisen closed the gap to one with a solo homer in the sixth. But after pulling within 6-5, Ryan wasn’t happy with how the game ended.
“Get close, Mathisen hits a home run, and the next 11 (hitters) are retired,” Ryan said.
Curve starter Alex McRae (9-5) allowed six runs on 11 hits in 4 2/3 innings for the loss. Trenton starter Brody Koerner (4-3) gave up five runs in six innings but still got the win, and Cale Coshow worked a perfect ninth for his 15th save.
“It’s a credit to how hard these guys prepare and how hard they work,” Trenton manager Bobby Mitchell said of his team’s tremendous success. “Pregame, the workouts we have, even the strength work, these guys work really hard and are probably as prepared as anybody to go on the field and play.
“We’ve lost a lot of guys, but guys have stepped right in and filled in nicely and done a great job. Our pitching has been outstanding all year. I think pitching and defense is the secret to winning a lot of games, because you’re not going to always hit, and we’ve done that all year.”
Trenton is winning the right way in the minors, doing it almost entirely with age-appropriate prospects for the Double-A level. The Yankees had the No. 2 farm system in baseball entering the season, according to MLB Pipeline.
The Thunder haven’t had an easy time during games against Altoona, and Mitchell noted that has a lot to do with the Curve’s talent and preparation.
“There’s some teams that you play well against and you have that thing over them kind of during the season, and then there’s others you struggle with,” Mitchell said. “(The Curve are) a very well-prepared team also. I know Mike does a great job preparing the team, and I’m sure the organization does, too.
“They’re very organized, they’re very prepared, and that’s the way they play. They don’t give you games. You have to earn every one of them.”
Key player: CF Jeff Hendrix went 4-for-4 with an RBI and a run for Trenton.
Key play: The Thunder scored four runs in the fifth inning for a 6-1 lead and were able to hang on.
Key stat: Trenton has the best record in minor league baseball over the past two seasons (164-94).
How they scored
Top second: Diaz doubled, scored on Crawford single (0-1); Hendrix double scored Crawford (0-2).
Bottom fourth: Suiter doubled, scored on Jhang single (1-2).
Top fifth: Hendrix singled, scored on Ford single (1-3); Solak singled, scored on McBroom sacrifice fly (1-4); Estrada singled, scored along with Ford on Zehner double (1-6).
Bottom fifth: Suchy singled, Tucker walked, Reyes walked, all three scored on Feliz triple (4-6).
Bottom sixth: Mathisen solo homer (5-6).
Tonight: Trenton at Altoona, DH, 4:30 p.m.
Pitchers: Curve RHP Mitch Keller (0-0, 3.00) and RHP Austin Coley (4-3, 2.96) vs. Thunder RHP Dillon Tate (AA debut) and RHP Jose Mesa Jr. (1-0, 1.80)
Covering the bases
LEADING OFF: Trenton has by far the EL’s best team ERA at 2.85, but the Curve have actually hit the Thunder pretty well. Trenton’s ERA against Altoona is 4.35. “Our approach against them, I think it’s pretty good,” manager Michael Ryan said. “We try to get the ball out over the plate elevated a little bit and take our hits the other way.”
SAFE AT FIRST: CF Jeff Hendrix went 4-for-4 Friday for Trenton to raise his average to .359 since coming up from high-A Tampa. On the Thunder’s success, he said, “I haven’t been here long, but it’s been a lot of fun, good team camaraderie.” Asked about the Curve playing Trenton tough, Hendrix said, “They’re always battling out there, too, and any time you play anyone that’s competing really hard it’s always a fun time.”
STEALING SECOND: Today’s doubleheader features some fantastic pitching matchups. Pirates top pitching prospect RHP Mitch Keller will make his home debut for the Curve in game one, and RHP Austin Coley, who has been solid all year, goes in game two. RHP Dillon Tate will make his Double-A debut in game one for Trenton. He went 6-0 with a 2.62 ERA in nine starts at high-A Tampa.
ROUNDING THIRD: Trenton’s starter in game two is a familiar name — Jose Mesa Jr. The 23-year-old is the son of the longtime MLB pitcher who pitched for eight different teams in the majors, including the Pirates (2004-05).
HEADING HOME: The start of Friday’s game was delayed by 18 minutes because of rain.
— Cory Giger