Inconsistent Curve have plenty of potential

The Curve reached the midway point of the season Monday with their 70th game, and the bad news is the very talented team really hasn’t come close to playing up to its potential.

The good news is the club has shown glimpses of doing just that recently. Furthermore, it survived the first-half ups and downs with a decent record (37-33) and still has a very good chance to make the playoffs for a fourth consecutive year.

“If I could say in one word, it would be inconsistent,” manager Michael Ryan said when asked to describe the first half. “It seems like we take three steps forward but take two steps back the next week. But it still puts us a step ahead.”

Ryan had a classic rant following a game in early May in which he questioned if the players even care about winning.

“What bothers me is, if you don’t care, then why are you here?” he said after a one-hit, 2-0 home loss to Bowie. “If you don’t care that you just got embarrassed, why are you here?”

The big issue that comes up when analyzing this team and this season is all about expectations. One outlet ranked the Curve as having the seventh-most talented roster in all the minor leagues prior to the season, focusing on the bevy of top-30 Pirates guys, several first-round draft picks and one of the game’s best pitching prospects, Mitch Keller.

When a club gets labeled that favorably, then huge things are expected. But while talent is one thing, it cannot be overstated that a lot of the guys mentioned are in their first year of Double-A, and if the past 19 years have shown us anything, it’s that the jump to this level can make really talented guys look really average for a while.

The Curve started out 6-2, so it looked like all the hype was warranted. But since that 6-2 start, the team has played .500 ball (31-31), and the record is that good only because of a season-high five-game winning streak last week.

Still, the Curve followed up their very impressive play and offensive outburst during that five-game winning streak by losing five of their next seven and getting held to one run in three of the losses.

“We’ve had really good weeks, we’ve have a stretch of four games where we’ve played unbelievable, then we go and don’t play so well and have a tough week,” Ryan said. “So just stay out of the roller coaster type aspect of the season and try to be more consistent and I think we’re OK.”

The Curve are in good shape from a playoff standpoint, currently in third place in the Western Division, 2 ¢ games behind Akron and just half a game behind Harrisburg. The top two teams in the division make the postseason.

The Senators have a solid team, but historically, the Washington Nationals haven’t been shy about taking many of the team’s best players away in the second half, either to Triple-A or call-ups straight to the majors. Erie (33-41) and Bowie (33-41) both have struggled and aren’t likely to get much better. Richmond (38-35) is half a game behind the Curve and could remain in contention the rest of the way.

“We’ve definitely finally got a connection with each other, able to work on stuff,” lefty starting pitcher Taylor Hearn said. “It’s so crazy how we’ve come together these last two months.

“I feel like whenever we do hit the all-star break is when we’re going to take off because we’re starting to get a groove now, everybody’s starting to get a feeling for things now.”

As center fielder Jason Martin said, “The talent and the vision is a championship. We’ve got the guys, we’ve got the talent.”

But for how long? The main concern for the Curve the rest of the way is that they’re almost certain to lose their best position player and best pitcher.

Keller has to be in his final days, you’d think, before a promotion to Triple-A as dominant as he’s been lately. Martin, the obvious choice for team MVP of the first half, is hitting .333 with a lot of Double-A experience and should be gone to Triple-A soon, as well.

“I feel like I’ve progressed a lot,” said Martin, who has nine homers, 33 RBIs and a .933 OPS. “I feel like my feel of the strike zone has gotten better. I’ve been working on little things with my swing that has started to come along a little bit better. And just the experience at this level has helped a lot.”

What will the Curve look like after Keller and Martin are gone? And perhaps shortstop Cole Tucker, who could go up to Triple-A once Kevin Newman is promoted to Pittsburgh?

There will still be a lot of talent on the club, including Will Craig, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Stephen Alemais, to name a few, but losing elite prospects is sure to take some sort of toll.

So, while there’s lots of reasons to be optimistic about the Curve in the second half, there also will be some big question marks that will pop up.

“The scary thing is we haven’t played our best baseball yet, and we believe that’s coming,” Ryan said.

If he’s right, then another playoff appearance could be in the cards.

“Our goal has been to play the best baseball we can at the end of the year, and I think we’re on our way,” Ryan said.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: CF Jason Martin went 3-for-4 Monday to raise his average to .333, which ranks third in the Eastern League.

SAFE AT FIRST: RHP Mitch Keller lowered his ERA to 2.72, which is fourth in the EL.

STEALING SECOND: LHP Logan Darnell (3-4) took the loss for Harrisburg, giving up three runs on eight hits in five innings.

ROUNDING THIRD: SS Cole Tucker, 1B Will Craig and C Christian Kelley had two hits apiece for the Curve.

HEADING HOME: The Curve and Senators will play a doubleheader today beginning at 5 p.m. It’s a result of a rainout April 9.

— Cory Giger