Curve split twinbill

The Curve’s most pleasant surprise so far this season established a new career high with his third home run Saturday afternoon.

Catcher Christian Kelley reached three homers in only 18 games. In the first 234 games of his career prior to this year, he hit a grand total of four homers — two each in 2016 and 2017 for his previous career highs.

“Nice,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said with a little chuckle when told of Kelley’s new career high.

Kelley’s homer finished off the scoring in a 5-2 Curve victory over Erie in the first game of a doubleheader at Peoples Natural Gas Field. Altoona’s offense fizzled and had just two hits in dropping the second game, 2-0, before 4,228 fans.

Kelley is known as an excellent defensive catcher, and so far this year he’s been impressive offensively. He’s not only tied for the team lead in home runs, he’s also hitting .290 with three doubles, 11 RBIs and an .812 OPS, a huge improvement over his career OPS figure of .628.

Asked if he’s trying to do more at the plate, especially in the power department, Kelley said it’s actually the opposite.

“Doing less, really,” he said. “I’ve gotten into a couple hitters’ counts where, in the past, I overswung and really came off the ball and fouling off. And fouling off doesn’t hit the ball over the fence. I’ve just tried to pull back on the reins a little bit and take lighter swings at the ball and just try to barrel it up.”

The Curve took a 3-1 lead in the game, which started Friday night but was suspended because of rain in the third inning. Play resumed Saturday, and Altoona scored another run in the fourth before Kelley homered in the sixth.

Logan Sendelbach (2-1) picked up the win in relief for the Curve — on his 24th birthday, no less. Tate Scioneaux pitched the final two innings for his second save. Erie starter Kyle Dowdy (2-2) took the loss.

Kelley went 2-for-3 in the contest for this third straight two-hit game. He was hitting .125 through his first nine games, but since then has gone a whopping 14-for-30 with six multi-hit games to get up to .290.

Kelley hit .243 a year ago at high-A Bradenton, .236 at low-A West Virginia in 2016 and .232 at short-season West Virginia in 2015. But the 11th round draft pick out of Cal Poly Pomona in 2015 has kept advancing through the minors because of his superb defense.

“He’s a good hitter,” Ryan said. “Average wasn’t there last year maybe where he wanted it to be, but I heard that he hit a lot of balls hard, and it was one of those seasons where it seemed like everything that he hit hard was getting caught.”

Kelley said he has just tried to simplify things at the plate, and noted that getting more and more at-bats against quality pitching has helped.

“I would say it’s just reps,” he said. “Coming from a D-II level, I would see good arms here and there. I think now that I’m getting my game count up in the minors and being able to see more consistent stuff, it’s been helping me just attack the right pitches.”

No matter what happens with his offense, Kelley will continue to give himself opportunities with his strong defense.

“He’s one of our better (catchers) in the organization,” Ryan said.

“The most important thing is my defense, so whatever offense I can bring is a plus, I guess,” Kelley said.

The Curve dropped the second game as J.T. Brubaker (2-2) gave up two runs on six hits and three walks in four innings.

Doubleheader recap

Key players: C Christian Kelley went 2-for-3 with a homer in the first game for the Curve, and RHP Beau Burrows pitched six shutout innings for Erie in Game 2.

Key plays: LF Jordan George and 1B Will Craig had RBI singles in the first inning of Game 1 for the Curve, and SS Alcantara gave Erie the only run it needed with an RBI single in the second inning of Game 2.

Key stat: Kelley has three homers, already surpassing his career high in just 18 games.

How they scored

First game

Top 1st: Eaves doubled, scored on Ficociello single (0-1).

Bottom 1st: Martin singled, scored on George single (1-1); Craig singled, scored on Hill single (2-1).

Bottom 3rd: Martin tripled, scored on Craig sacrifice fly (3-1).

Bottom 4th: Alemais doubled, scored on Tucker sacrifice fly (4-1).

Top 6th: Quintana singled, scored on Lester single (4-2).

Bottom 6th: Kelley solo homer (5-2).

Second game

Top 2nd: Montgomery doubled, scored on Alcantara single (0-1).

Top 4th: Alcantara walked, scored on Eaves fielder’s choice (0-2).

Next stop

Today: Erie at Altoona, 2 p.m.

Pitchers: Curve RHP Joe Musgrove (rehab from Pirates) vs. SeaWolves RHP Sandy Baez (0-2, 4.88)

Record: 15-12

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: Pirates RHP Joe Musgrove will make a rehab start today for the Curve. Musgrove is coming off a shoulder injury and is expected to pitch four innings.

SAFE AT FIRST: RHP J.T. Brubaker entered his start Saturday with a 1.45 ERA, ranking fourth in the Eastern League. He had allowed only one run on eight hits in 15 innings with 13 strikeouts and no walks over his past two starts. But Brubaker struggled with his control, walking three and needing 79 pitches to get through four innings. To his credit, though, Brubaker minimized the damage as he allowed just two runs when it could have been worse.

STEALING SECOND: “I just didn’t have my best stuff today,” Brubaker said. “I felt like I was around the zone pretty well, felt like I was still competing pretty good. They just kept fighting pitches off, and I left some balls up, and they hit them for extra-base hits.”

ROUNDING THIRD: Why was the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader seven innings instead of nine? It’s because Friday’s contest was suspended before it had become an official game (five full innings). Had the game been suspended after the fifth inning, then the second game Saturday would have been nine innings instead of seven.

HEADING HOME: After today’s series finale, Bowie comes to town to begin a three-game series Monday.

— Cory Giger

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