Big crowd sees Curve extend win streak to 4

By Thomas Schlarp

For the Mirror

Call it a championship hangover or just a young team failing to meet expectations, but the Curve’s start to their Eastern League title defense was starting to resemble the old broken down roller coaster just beyond the right field wall of Peoples Natural Gas Field.

Underperforming prospects at the plate, combined with inconsistent pitching had Altoona in the unfamiliar territory of a below .500 record and staring up at several teams in the Western Division standings.

A 10-1 win over New Hampshire Friday night, and not even the best team in the Eastern League could extinguish the blazing Curve offense before the second-largest home crowd of the year with 7,211 fans.

“Guys are buying into the approach,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said. “Hitting is contagious. Each guy in the lineup is contributing. It’s a lot of fun to watch right now.”

Beginning Tuesday with their series at Binghamton, the Curve have strung together a four-game stretch finally resembling the play that such a talent laden squad should demonstrate.

The Curve have scored at least seven runs in each of their last four games and have won seven of their last eight.

Firepower at the plate ignited by players like Bralin Jackson and Will Craig has the team rolling on all cylinders and just two games out of first place in the Western Division entering play Friday.

Jackson, who went 3-of-4 Friday with a two-run home run and a pair of doubles to extend his torrid play at the plate says the team’s success was just a matter of time.

“It’s just that point in the season where we are hitting that surge,” Jackson said. “We’re just off to the races. Hitting is really contagious. When one guys gets a hit, another gets one. We’re just really riding this wave.”

In his last three games, the right fielder is 10-for-14 with three triples and a homer. He is batting .500 in the month of June to raise his average for the year to .316.

Since Tuesday Altoona has outscored its opponents 37-8 and have recorded double digit hits in each of their last five games.

A trip to Binghamton for the first time all season to face pitchers many of the Curve players hadn’t seen before is what Will Craig thinks was the biggest spark to building confidence for the young Curve team.

“We knew we could hit,” Craig said. “Our whole team knows that we have a really solid lineup. It just kind of happened all of a sudden. Win a few games and confidence goes up…Especially going to Binghamton rejuvenated the spirits a little bit. Everyone’s just having a good time, having a good time playing. When you’re scoring ten runs a game that helps.”

A noticeably loser locker room after the game with several players playing cards and joking around demonstrated the positive effect that winning can have on an underachieving team as team chemistry continues to build.

“We’re just all gelling,” Jackson said. “We’re mixing together. We’re just finally really clicking as a group, as a whole, in the clubhouse, and it’s translating to the field.”

While the run support was an added bonus, LHP Cam Vieaux (2-0) proved efficient yet again in just his second start of the season since his promotion from Bradenton. Vieaux allowed one run and five hits in seven innings as he easily outperformed New Hampshire RHP Josh DeGraaf who needed 89 pitches to make it through three and third innings as he surrendered five runs, two earned.

“It’s a young team for the league,” Ryan said. “The adjustments that they are making right now and the results that they’re having, you’ve got to be able to have a certain maturity to do that.”

Game recap

Key player: Bralin Jackson went 3-for-4 with a two-run homer and two doubles.

Key play: Jackson’s two-run homer in the 4th highlighted the inning’s offensive flurry.

Key stat: The Curve have allowed only eight runs in their four-game hot streak.

How they scored

Bottom 2nd: Craig walked, scored on Reynolds double (1-0).

Top 3rd: Davis singled, scored on Berti single (1-1).

Bottom 3rd: Alemais singled, scored on Jackson double (2-1).

Bottom 4th: Reynolds reached on fielder’s choice, scored on George single (3-1); Hill walked, scored with George on Alemais double (5-1); Tucker single scored Alemais on throwing error (6-1); Jackson two-run homer scored Tucker (8-1).

Bottom 5th: Craig singled, scored on George groundout (9-1).

Bottom 8th: Tucker walked, scored on Jackson double (10-1).

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: Will Craig followed up on his three home run series at Binghamton by reaching base three times Friday night with a pair of hits and a walk. Craig has reached base in nine of his last ten games.

SAFE AT FIRST: “Everyone is just finally starting to understand what they need to get ready for the game,” Craig said. “I play like every pitch is my last pitch. I try to get ready to attack that pitch. I’m just ready to go and not be passive. “

STEALING SECOND: Entering Friday, the Curve entered play with the second fewest runs scored and second fewest hits in the Eastern League, so the success at the plate is a warm welcome.

ROUNDING THIRD: RHP Enny Romero (2-2), who was transferred from high-A Bradenton to Altoona on an MLB rehab assignment, pitched one innings of scoreless relief with a walk and a strikeout. Romero pitched in two games for the Washington Nationals before being claimed off of waivers by the Pirates in April. The pitcher has a 7.50 ERA in six innings of work this year in the majors and allowed one run in two-thirds of an inning for Bradenton earlier this week.

HEADING HOME: New Hampshire’s Vlad Guerrero Jr. who leads the Eastern League in hits, RBIs and slugging percentage will not see time against Altoona this series. The third baseman is expected to be out a month with a patellar tendon strain.

— Thomas Schlarp

Next stop

Tonight: New Hampshire at Altoona, 6 p.m.

Pitchers: Fisher Cats RHP Justin Dillon (1-1, 6.00) vs. Curve RHP Pedro Vasquez (0-4 5.73)

Record: 33-28