Curve sweep their way to Eastern League title

Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec Curve outfielder Jonathan Schwind (23) hugs catcher Tomas Morales moments after the team won the league title at home Thursday night.

When Jin-De Jhang hit the ball, the home crowd erupted as loudly as it ever has in the Curve’s 19 seasons.

“That was the biggest hit I’ve ever seen in my life,” pitcher Mitch Keller said. “Right when he hit it, I just got straight chills. That was the coolest thing ever.”

Jhang drilled a go-ahead three-run triple in the fifth inning Thursday night that goes down as the biggest hit in Curve history. It gave Altoona a 4-2 lead, and that wound up being the final as the Curve beat Trenton to finish off a perfect playoff run and capture the franchise’s second Eastern League championship before 3,656 raucous fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

“I’m very happy. I will remember this time,” Jhang, a catcher from Taiwan, said with a huge smile.

The Curve’s magical run through the playoffs included a three-game sweep of Bowie, which had gone 14-5 against Altoona during the regular season.

Then the Curve swept three games from Trenton, which had more wins (92) than any team in minor league baseball this season.

Talk about peaking at the right time, the Curve never won more than five games in a row this year, then won all six in the playoffs to go along with their final two of the regular season.

“It’s unbelievable,” first baseman Jerrick Suiter said. “We’ve got a core group of guys that were together last year, and this is the most close-knit baseball team I’ve ever played with in my entire life. I love these guys. There’s no one else I’d rather do this with.”

The Curve players and coaches partied hard after the game, first spending a lot of time on the field thanking fans, then later with a champagne bash in the clubhouse.

“You are champions for the rest of your life,” manager Michael Ryan told the players. “No one can take that away.”

This isn’t the first time many of the players on the team have won a championship. Twelve did so last season at high-A Bradenton, managed by Ryan, and a few more did as well at low-A West Virginia two years ago.

These guys simply know how to win, and it showed over the past week as the team played its best ball of the season.

The Curve claimed their first EL title in 2010, winning the clinching game in Trenton. Owner Bob Lozinak was on hand for that memorable moment, and he said winning it at home was “100 times better.”

“Even (EL President) Joe McEacharn said to me, ‘You know, you’ve won it before, but it’s so much nicer to give you this trophy in Altoona,'” Lozinak said.

The Curve won the championship behind a stellar pitching staff that allowed only 10 runs — nine earned — in the six playoff games for a 1.50 team ERA.

Keller, the Pirates’ top pitching prospect was on the mound looking to close it out Thursday, but he gave up two runs on a pair of hits in the second inning.

“I think I got a little anxious,” Keller said. “I got the first inning out of the way, I was feeling really good. First base hit (in the second), I kind of just left that over the middle of the plate for a double. Next guy, I thought he fouled it off, but I guess it hit him. But oh well.”

Trenton took that 2-0 lead and was counting on its own dominant pitching staff, which had a 2.83 ERA this season, the lowest in the EL since 1976.

But the Curve came back in the fifth inning against Thunder starter Will Carter, loading the bases with two outs and scoring their first run when Suiter walked with the bases loaded.

Jhang, batting left-handed, came up against Carter, a righty, and Trenton manager Bobby Mitchell opted to keep his starter in the game. Jhang got ahead 2-1 in the count, then smoked a fly ball over the head of right fielder Jeff Hendrix to the wall.

All three runners scored easily as Jhang, who’s not exactly the fastest runner, cruised into third base for the triple.

“That situation, I just wanted to help the team, see my pitch, hit my pitch and try to hit the ball hard,” Jhang said.

The Curve had a 4-2 lead, but a Trenton team that did nothing but win all season didn’t go down quietly.

Keller settled down after his rocky second and pitched 7 1/3 innings, giving up just the two runs on four hits with eight strikeouts and one walk. He went back out for the eighth and gave up a leadoff single and walk before getting lifted with one out.

The crowd showed its appreciation with a standing ovation for Keller, the easy choice for playoff MVP after he also threw a one-hit shutout at Bowie last week.

Ryan had righty Johnny Hellweg, a former major leaguer, warming up in the bullpen and called on him with two on out and one out. Hellweg walked the first man he faced to load the bases.

Hellweg then busted a fastball in on Billy Fleming, who had an excuse-me swing that hit the ball about three feet in front of the plate. Jhang grabbed it and stepped on the plate for the second out.

With the crowd roaring, Hellweg escaped the jam with a groundout to short by Dante Bichette Jr.

Hellweg was a late-season addition who had been pitching in independent ball before the Pirates signed him to help out the Curve bullpen. He did just that with his magic act in the eighth inning.

“We were all sitting down there (in the bullpen) waiting to see whose name he was going to call,” Hellweg said. “I was glad they called mine.”

Hellweg’s clutch performance helped the Curve win a title, and helped the 28-year-old win the first championship of his long career.

“So thankful,” he said of the Pirates signing him. “I feel like this is a rejuvenating part of my career. To be around these guys, seeing Mitch Keller and these young guys doing so well, it makes me feel like there’s still hope.”

Ryan turned to Tate Scioneaux to finish things off in the ninth. Scioneaux had a superb season before struggling a bit down the stretch, but he was sensational in closing out the title game.

Scioneaux struck out all three batters he faced swinging, including Zack Zehner to end it.

“Getting the ball in Game 3 and end the series right there, it was unbelievable just getting that ball one last time,” Scioneaux said.

The Curve held a wild celebration on the mound after the final out, then everyone — players, coaches and fans alike — took part in relishing the moment.

“This is an amazing thing for this community, an amazing thing for this organization and our team, and we’re super excited about it,” outfielder Jon Schwind said.

SUBHD: Game recap

Key player: RHP Mitch Keller held Trenton to two runs in 7 1/3 to get the win and was named playoff MVP.

Key play: C Jin-De Jhang’s three-run triple in the fifth inning gave the Curve a 4-2 win.

Key stat: The Curve went 6-0 in the playoffs to win the second EL title in franchise history.

SUBHD: How they scored

Top 2nd: Bichette Jr. doubled, scored on Zehner groundout (0-1); Solak hit by pitch, scored on Crawford double (0-2).

Bottom 5th: Escobar singled, scored on Suiter bases-loaded walk (1-2); Reyes walked, Kramer reached on fielder’s choice, both scored along with Suiter on Jhang triple (4-2).