Curve follow up clincher with a dud

By Cory Giger

Both the Curve and Trenton clinched playoff spots and partied Sunday, so there was a strong chance that one or both teams would come out flat Monday night.

There’s no record kept of how teams historically have performed the day after clinching, but given all the excitement and extracurricular activities that go along with it, there’s no question it’s hard to get back up for a game the next day.

It was Altoona that suffered more of the day-after curse this time, doing very little offensively in a 5-1 loss to Trenton before 2,957 fans Monday night at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

“Not saying that it’s an excuse for our players or that was to be expected, because it wasn’t,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said of the loss.

“It’s tough to match that same intensity. When you’re hugging each other, you’re celebrating, and then you come and it’s a Monday evening and the crowd’s not too big, I think that’s the trap that we got into tonight. We’ll come back ready to fight and work (tonight).”

The Curve still have a one-game lead over Akron for first place in the Western Division, since the RubberDucks lost at home to Bowie.

All four playoff spots are locked up in the Eastern League, with Altoona and Akron in the Western Division and Trenton and New Hampshire in the Eastern Division. But there’s a battle for the regular-season crown in both divisions, with the Curve and Fisher Cats both up by just one game.

One of the biggest reasons Altoona has a chance to repeat as Eastern League champs is its starting pitching, which has been sensational of late. In the 22 starts prior to Monday, Curve starters had combined to go 14-4 with a 2.30 ERA.

Monday’s loss really shouldn’t even count against that trend since it was a bullpen day for the Curve. Reliever Logan Sendelbach (4-3) made a spot start and took the loss, giving up three runs over 3 1/3 innings, with all three scoring in the fourth as Trenton grabbed a 3-1 lead.

Trevor Stephan (3-8) entered with a bad record and 5.13 ERA for Trenton, but he got the win, holding Altoona’s sluggish offense to one run on two hits over six innings. Jordan Foley pitched the final three innings for his 10th save.

Back to the Curve’s starting pitching, it’s now up to Ryan and pitching coach Bryan Hickerson to come up with a game plan for the playoffs. There are five good starting options between Eduardo Vera, Dario Agrazal, Cam Vieaux, James Marvel and Scooter Hightower.

Ryan won’t show his hand just yet about who will start game one next week against Akron.

“I’m going to go game one with the guy that we feel is going to carry the momentum forward, that’s going to compete, get us late in the game,” Ryan said. “It’s going to be Akron, it’s probably going to be a ton of left-handed hitters in the lineup out there.”

Vera would seem to be the odds-on choice for game one, having gone 7-0 with a 2.57 ERA over his last nine starts. He was named EL pitcher of the week on Monday and is slated to make his next start Friday, so he would be on his normal rest five days later for the playoff opener — if the coaches choose to go that route.

Ryan wouldn’t bite, though, on naming Vera or anyone else’s starting spot for the playoffs.

“There’s a lot of factors that we’re talking about, and there’s really been no decision made,” the manager said.

“With the five guys in the rotation, I feel very comfortable right now where they’re at,” Ryan also said. “It’s carried like sort of a friendly competitiveness between the guys where they want to outdo one another the next start.”

SUBHD: Game recap

Key player: RF Jhalan Jackson went 2-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs for Trenton.

Key play: Jackson’s two-run single in the fourth broke a 1-1 tie and put the Thunder on top to stay.

Key stat: The Curve remain one game ahead of Akron for first place in the Western Division.

SUBHD: How they scored

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

Top 4th: Katoh doubled, scored on Holder bases-loaded walk (1-1); Saez singled, Wagner walked, both scored on Jackson single (1-3).

Top 8th: Rijo walked, scored on Wagner single (1-4).

Top 9th: Jackson solo homer (1-5).

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: If the Curve win the regular-season division title and host Akron in a playoff game Saturday, Sept. 8, it will start at 4 p.m. at PNG Field. Penn State plays at Pitt at 8 p.m. that night, so the Curve don’t want to go up against that game in the evening.

SAFE AT FIRST: Manager Michael Ryan did not disclose the reasons for RHPs Yeudy Garcia and Luis Escobar being placed on the suspended list Sunday night for violating club policies. “The only thing that I can say is there’s still some information that we’re trying to gather,” Ryan said. “But it’s two guys that challenged our Pirate culture and how to act as a professional. It’s unacceptable behavior, and that’s the reason they got suspended.”

STEALING SECOND: Asked if Garcia and Escobar are finished for the season, Ryan said, “I’m not quite sure yet.”

ROUNDING THIRD: RHP Eduardo Vera was named EL pitcher of the week Monday after going 2-0 with a 0.61 ERA in two starts last week. He allowed just one run on five hits and struck out 16 over 14 2/3 innings.

HEADING HOME: Vera’s seven wins in his last nine starts since July 12 are tied for the most among all full-season minor league pitchers during that span.

— Cory Giger