Curve closer to clinching

By Cory Giger

The Curve are the best team in the Eastern League right now, both by recent play and by overall record this season, and can clinch their fourth consecutive playoff berth today.

If they can keep it all up for another three weeks, they will be celebrating a second straight EL title.

The Curve swept a doubleheader from Richmond on Saturday, 9-2 and 3-0, before 6,101 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field. In doing so, Altoona improved to 73-56 and now has the EL’s best record by the slimmest of margins over Akron (74-57).

Either a win by the Curve or a loss by Harrisburg today will send Altoona to the postseason.

“That’s the first step for us as a team, but we obviously have more ambitious goals than just clinching,” said James Marvel, winning pitcher in game one.

The Curve’s winning percentage is .566, while the RubberDucks are at .565. The two teams are technically tied for the Western Division lead, but Altoona has two distinct advantages with nine games left for both clubs.

First, the Curve are one game ahead in the loss column, so they control their own destiny. Second, Altoona won the season series against Akron, 12-10, so if the teams finish tied, the Curve will be the top seed and have home-field advantage against the RubberDucks in the divisional playoffs.

The Curve obviously want to win the division, but with the two teams destined to meet in the playoffs, does it really matter who finishes first or second?

“Right now I want to say it will matter,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said. “You always want to clinch or have the possibility of clinching a series in front of your home crowd. If you win the division, you’ve got the opportunity to do that.”

Then Ryan stopped briefly and gave a subtly comical answer.

“If we don’t win the division, I’ll say it won’t matter,” he deadpanned.

What’s interesting about today is that Akron hosts Harrisburg at 2:05 p.m, while the Curve host Richmond at 6. With the magic number at one, if Akron wins, it will clinch a playoff spot for the Curve before they even play.

If Harrisburg wins, then Altoona would have to win its game tonight to clinch the playoff berth. Ryan said whatever the Senators do won’t impact his club.

“We’re going to go play at 6 o’clock,” the manager said. “If we win, we’re going to celebrate. If it ends up where we get in somehow by not winning the game (tonight), we’re going to celebrate.”

Either way, Ryan’s plan is for the Curve to have a postgame celebration for clinching a playoff berth. They will have another celebration if they win the division, and another win if they win their first-round playoff series, and then a final one if they win the EL title.

Just like last year.

What’s also just like last year is that the Curve are playing their best ball at the end of the season, just in time for a run at a title. The starting pitching has been exceptional of late, and the team comes up with clutch hits every night, which is exactly how Altoona won the EL title last season.

“It’s eerily similar,” Ryan said about comparing the two late-season surges. “The road trip up to the north when we went New Hampshire, Portland, we had it really good, and then we went to Hartford last year and swept them. We came home and carried the momentum, and I thought that carried us into the postseason on a great note. Another great road trip this year up north, and we’ve carried the momentum here.”

Marvel, who just joined the Curve a couple of weeks ago from high-A Bradenton, said he’s never been in a playoff chase during his pro career. Now he’s part of a team that’s peaking and, as of now, would be the favorite to win the title.

“I’m very excited, and I think the team feels good and is excited,” Marvel said.

Doubleheader recap

Key player: CF Bryan Reynolds went 5-for-6 in the two games — 2-for-3 with three runs and an RBI in the opener and 3-for-3 in the second game for the Curve.

Key plays: Altoona scored six runs in the fourth inning of game one and took control of game two with two runs in the third for a 3-0 lead.

Key stat: The Curve have the best record in the EL (73-56), and their magic number to clinch a playoff berth is down to one.

How they scored

First game

Bottom 1st: Tucker singled, Reynolds walked, both scored on Hill single (2-0).

Bottom 3rd: Reynolds singled, scored on Jhang single (3-0).

Bottom 4th: Alemais singled, Marvel walked, both scored on Reynolds single and McCasland error (5-0); Tucker walked, scored on Jhang single (6-0); Hill bases-loaded walk scored Reynolds (7-0); Craig intentionally walked, scored on George bases-loaded walk (8-0); Jhang singled, scored on Alemais sacrifice fly (9-0).

Top 5th: Winn walked, scored on Lipka double (9-1); Hinojosa sacrifice fly scored Lipka (9-2).

Second game

Bottom 2nd: Gaffney hit by pitch, scored on Hightower single (1-0).

Bottom 3rd: Alemais singled, scored on Craig single (2-0); Hill double scored Craig (3-0).

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: RHP James Marvel (3-1) pitched a complete game to win the opener for the Curve, giving up two runs on six hits over seven innings with four strikeouts and two walks. He has a 2.33 ERA since coming up to Double-A. RHP Jake McCasland (4-7) took the loss for Richmond.

SAFE AT FIRST: RHP Scooter Hightower (1-1) was even better in winning game two, shutting out the Flying Squirrels on two hits over six innings, striking out five with no walks. He also had an RBI single. LHP Garrett Williams (3-9) lost for Richmond.

STEALING SECOND: Speaking of the excellent starting pitching of late, Marvel said, “I think everybody’s just trying to keep up with each other. Somebody goes out and has a great outing, it’s inspiring for the rest of the guys on the staff to go out and try and do better than him, which is tough to do because everybody’s going out and having long, quality starts.”

ROUNDING THIRD: The Curve’s closer going forward will be RHP Matt Eckelman, who pitched the final inning to earn his 10th save in game two. “The mindset of (Eckelman) is he enjoys being in that situation,” manager Michael Ryan said. “We’ve had guys earlier in the season that might not have enjoyed being in that situation and felt some pressure. That’s another reason why we’re going with him.” RHP Tate Scioneaux will be the primary setup guy in the eighth inning. “I think it’s a good one-two punch,” Ryan said. “You’ve got Scioneaux with the rising fastball and then Eckelman coming back with the splitty that’s downward angle and high velocity, so I like the combo.”

HEADING HOME: 1B Will Craig drove in his 98th run of the season in the second game. He now has nine games left to pick up eight more RBIs to catch Adam Hyzdu’s franchise record of 106.

— Cory Giger