Curve clinch playoff spot with win

It never gets old making the playoffs in baseball, and the Curve have been there a bunch — nine times in 20 seasons, including now four in a row.

But while a number of players who celebrated clinching a postseason berth Sunday night had done so before in their careers, it was a totally new experience for some of the Curve’s top players.

“This is amazing, man,” second baseman Stephen Alemais said during the first beer-soaked clubhouse playoff celebration of his pro career. “It’s one of the best feelings in the world.”

“It’s definitely a culture shock,” said first baseman Will Craig, also a first-time participant of the postgame clinching party. “I’m not really used to it, but it’s definitely an awesome experience being able to be here with all my guys.”

The Curve two-hit Richmond in a 3-0 win to clinch at least a wild-card playoff berth before 5,667 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field. In a couple weeks, Altoona will be trying to win a second consecutive Eastern League championship and the third in franchise history (also 2010).

The Curve also took over sole possession of first place in the Western Division for the first time in 4 ¢ months with the victory. The players and coaches on the league’s hottest and best team believe Sunday’s postgame celebration was simply the beginning.

“This is the first of four,” manager Michael Ryan, donning an orange Al Tuna hat and goggles, told his players while standing in the middle of the circle right before the beer went flying to start the clubhouse party.

With a week left in the regular season, a second celebration would come if the Curve hold off Akron for the division title. Altoona moved one game up on the RubberDucks on Sunday.

A third celebration would be for winning the first-round playoff series, then the fourth would be for winning the whole shebang.

Just like the Curve did last year.

A playoff spot has been a given for a while now — and in a wild coincidence, this is the third straight year Altoona has clinched against Richmond — but just getting into the postseason won’t be enough for this club.

“In our minds and in this clubhouse, we’re the best team in this league,” pitcher Cam Vieaux said. “Anything short of four of these (celebrations) is going to be kind of a failure of a year in our opinions because we think we can go out and dominate everyone.”

The Curve have the EL’s best record at 74-56 and are a season-high 18 games over .500. The team has been sensational of late, certainly peaking at the right time thanks to terrific starting pitching, clutch hitting and an improved bullpen.

“Earlier in the season we were struggling, but now look at us — probably one of the best teams, in my opinion, in minor league baseball,” Craig said. “I’m just very fortunate and happy to be part of this team.”

Christian Kelley delivered the big hit Sunday, a two-run homer in the second inning.

“It felt good to do that for the guys tonight,” Kelley said of his big hit.

The Curve have a bunch of star prospects, but they also have a slew of good role players who continue to produce when needed.

“One through 25, all these guys have the ability to play at the next level and compete when it matters,” Kelley said.

Bryan Reynolds gave the Curve a 3-0 lead with an RBI groundout in the sixth. But as it turned out, all they really needed was one run on the night.

Eduardo Vera (8-3) turned in a tremendous start for Altoona, shutting out Richmond on two hits over 7 2/3 innings with nine strikeouts and three walks. He gave up a single and walk to start the game, then got a double play and was nearly untouchable the rest of his night.

Geoff Hartlieb worked the final 1 1/3 innings to finish off the two-hit shutout and earn his ninth save.

“I think, honestly, the way the bullpen has improved is the reason why we’re here right now and in the position that we are in,” Ryan said. “Because how many teams honestly would be in the position … that we’re in with 21 blown saves? Honestly. And (the bullpen has) been lights out for the last month, month and a half.”

The Curve were 42-39 on July 5 but have gone 32-17 since then. Over the past seven weeks, Alemais said the players “just started to find ourselves and our identities and what everyone else does well.”

“We collectively, cohesively started doing what we can do together,” Alemais added. “It’s always better late than never, and we’re kind of seeing it now toward the end. This is the team we knew we could be, and at the same time, we look around the league, we’re young compared to other teams, but there’s so much talent in this room.”

Talent. That’s the key word. The Curve were ranked the No. 7 most talented team in the minor leagues at the beginning of the season, but they scuffled for a while and didn’t live up to expectations.

Some key players have been promoted, but a talented core group has remained, and those guys and others have flourished of late.

“Right when the beginning of the season started, before we talked to the club, this was the expectation — to win a championship,” Ryan said. “This is step No. 1. When you go through these type of things, you think back to what got you to that point and everything that we’ve been through, the ups and downs, those moments hit you. I think that’s what makes it so special.”

Ryan will be seeking his third straight league title, including with the Curve last year and with high-A Bradenton in 2016. He just grinned when asked if getting to the postseason ever gets old.

“It does not,” he said. “Like I said last year and the previous year, to accomplish things with a group and then do it with a different group, to see how proud they are of themselves right now, that’s why I get up in the morning.”

SUBHD: Game recap

Key player: RHP Eduardo Vera tossed a two-hit shutout for 7 2/3 innings for the Curve.

Key play: C Christian Kelley’s two-run homer in the second inning gave Altoona all the runs it needed.

Key stat: The Curve are in the playoffs for the fourth year in a row and ninth time in franchise history (also 2003, ’04, ’05, ’06 and 2010).

SUBHD: How they scored

Bottom 2nd: Hill singled, scored on Kelley two-run homer (2-0).

Bottom 6th: Tucker singled, scored on Reynolds groundout (3-0).

Next stop

Tonight: Trenton at Altoona, 6 p.m.

Pitchers: Curve RHP Logan Sendelbach (4-2, 4.10) vs. Thunder RHP Trevor Stephan (2-8, 5.13)

Record: 74-56

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: The Curve had some interesting transactions after Sunday’s game. RHP Luis Escobar and RHP Yeudy Garcia were placed on the suspended list for violating team policies. It’s unclear what they did or if they will be reinstated at some point.

SAFE AT FIRST: LHP Elvis Escobar, a former Curve position player who just a couple of months ago switched to pitching, was promoted to Altoona from low-A West Virginia and was in the clubhouse to enjoy the playoff-clinching celebration. Escobar, who throws in the mid-90s, went 3-2 with a 2.08 ERA in 15 relief appearances for West Virginia, giving up just 17 hits in 26 innings while striking out 28 with 12 walks.

STEALING SECOND: LHP Blake Weiman was promoted to the Curve from high-A Bradenton, where he went 2-1 with a 3.90 ERA and two saves in 21 relief appearances. He had a 1.29 ERA in 14 games for low-A West Virginia earlier this year.

ROUNDING THIRD: SS Cole Tucker went 3-for-3 with a walk for the Curve in the win.

HEADING HOME: Trenton comes to town for four games starting tonight. It will be a rematch of last year’s Eastern League Championship Series, which the Curve swept, and could be a preview of the ELCS again this year as both teams are headed for the playoffs.

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