Akron tops Altoona in possible playoff preview

The Eastern League playoffs start in one month, and like so many times in years past, it appears the Curve and Akron will be squaring off once again.

This weekend’s series marks the last time the two clubs will meet in the regular season, and the first two games have provided a good glimpse of what could be in store in the postseason.

“Two really good teams in my opinion just going back and forth and trading shots,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said following a fun slugfest Saturday night.

The RubberDucks held off a late rally by Altoona in a 9-8 win before 6,087 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field. The Curve had the bases loaded with one out in the ninth but couldn’t push across the tying run, and Akron evened up the series.

Jordan George hit two homers for the Curve, who were up 5-2 before the RubberDucks scored five runs in the fifth inning. Akron led 9-5, but Altoona clawed back in it before coming up just short.

The RubberDucks have the Eastern League’s best record at 66-46, while the Curve are 58-50 and two games up on Harrisburg for the final playoff spot in the Western Division.

The Curve, however, lead the season series against Akron, 11-10, so there is really no separation between the two clubs head to head.

Ryan said it’s stressful playing against the RubberDucks for nine innings because they do so many things well.

“They grind at-bats, their bullpen is really good, they do not make mistakes,” Ryan said.

“I do like playing them,” Curve shortstop Cole Tucker said. “For me it simulates what it’s going to be like to play in the big leagues. They’re a really good team, and they don’t make a lot of mistakes.”

The feeling is mutual from the Akron side.

“We think they’re one of the most talented teams in the league, so we always get up a little bit more when we do play them,” veteran Akron third baseman Joe Sever said. “I think it will be them (as the playoff opponent), and I think this will be a little preview for it.”

George ripped a two-run homer in the second inning and solo shot in the fourth. No Curve player has ever hit three homers in a game, and George had three more shots at it but couldn’t accomplish the feat.

Curve third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes had an interesting night as he came up to bat three times with the bases loaded and also once with runners on second and third. He walked once with the bases loaded but was retired the other two times and wound up stranding eight runners on base.

It was 9-8 in the seventh and Hayes was up with the bases loaded, but he struck out to end the inning. In the ninth, Tucker came up with the bases loaded and one out, but he struck out and then Hayes flew out to end the game.

“They got the best of us tonight, but I loved our fight and happy with the way we responded,” Ryan said.

Dominic DeMasi (8-2) won in relief for Akron, while Bret Helton (5-6) took the loss in relief for the Curve.

The atmosphere felt like a playoff game, and it was a fun contest before a big crowd.

“Oh 100 percent,” Sever said of it being a fun game. “Close games, as a baseball player, are what you live for. It keeps you going and more attention to every pitch, almost like a playoff atmosphere.”

These two teams have met in the playoffs four times before, with Akron winning each time, and we could be a month away from seeing it again.

“You have to have that heightened sense of focus,” Tucker said of playing Akron, “and we take it as we’re playing against a really good team, and that’s what it’s going to be like from here on out and especially in the big leagues.”

Game recap

Key player: 1B Nellie Rodriguez went 2-for-3 with two RBIs, two runs and two walks.

Key play: Down a run in the ninth, Curve SS Cole Tucker struck out with the bases loaded and one out, then 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes flew out to end the game.

Key stat: Akron has the EL’s best record (66-46), but the Curve lead the season series against the RubberDucks, 11-10.

How they scored

Top 1st: Haggerty walked, Sever walked, both scored on Rodriguez double (0-2).

Bottom 2nd: Craig hit by pitch, scored on George two-run homer (2-2).

Bottom 4th: George solo homer (3-2); Hill walked, Kelley singled, both scored on Alemais double (5-2).

Top 5th: Pantoja walked, scored on Haggerty triple (5-3); Krieger sacrifice fly scored Haggerty (5-4); Sever walked, scored on Marshall sacrifice fly (5-5); Rodriguez singled, scored on Hayes error (5-6) that allowed Tom to reach; Salters double scored Tom (5-7).

Top 6th: Haggerty singled, Rodriguez walked, both scored on Marabell double (5-9).

Bottom 6th: Kelley singled, scored on Hayes bases-loaded walk (6-9).

Bottom 7th: Craig tripled, scored on Hill single (7-9); Alemais single scored Hill (8-9).