Curve pick up important ‘W’

By Cory Giger

When it comes to putting together a banner season, the Curve have pulled that off in so many impressive and tangible ways this year — on and off the field.

The goal remains to claim a second straight Eastern League championship banner, and a victory in Thursday’s regular-season home finale may end up playing a key role in that quest.

“I think that (win) was a lot more important than people realize tonight,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said.

Altoona didn’t put up much fight in losing the first three games of a series against Trenton, but the home team rebounded with a strong showing in a 5-1 victory Thursday night before 5,929 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

The Curve close the regular season with a four-game series at Bowie, which is playing great ball of late, and the last thing they wanted to do was limp into the road trip by getting swept at home.

“Last home game of the year, if you get swept at home, you go on the road with a sour taste in your mouth,” Ryan said. “We’ve played so well at home, and it will be a good feeling when we come back (for the playoffs).”

The win, coupled with Akron’s loss to Bowie, moved the Curve back into first place by one game over the RubberDucks in the Western Division. Altoona and Akron will meet in the playoffs next week, with the only thing left to decide is who will have home-field advantage in the series.

“I think (this win) got us going back in the right direction,” said Jordan George, who had a big hit early to help lead the way. “We had those three hiccups, but today we looked like we were back on track. Happy to go to Bowie and finish out the season strong and into the playoffs.”

The Curve wound up going 40-29 at home, the best mark in the Eastern League as of now (Trenton is 38-29 with four home games left).

The franchise also enjoyed a banner year from an attendance standpoint in its 20th season. The Curve’s attendance average finished at 4,571, the highest total since 2008 (5,179) and a 4 percent increase over last year’s number (4,395).

Making the attendance figure all the more impressive is that the weather was rough early on this season, and the club overcame it with a number of huge crowds late in the campaign.

“It’s a testament to the community, our players in the community and what they really bring,” Curve general manager Derek Martin said. “It’s been absolutely terrible weather. I feel bad for (some local companies), everyone outside. It’s been rough … A testament to our groundskeeper, Chris Mason. He did an absolutely fantastic job making the field playable, safe for the players.

“The community stepped up and kept coming to games, and we’re very fortunate to be in Altoona.”

Ryan noticed how much the fans came out in big numbers late in the season, which certainly helped the team on the field.

“When you walk outside and they’ve got the scoreboard going with the pregame thing and you see a bigger crowd, it gets you into the game,” Ryan said. “These guys fed off of that, and that’s why we’ve got the best following right now in the Eastern League and the best fans. We’re excited to be able to go back to the postseason and be able to play in front of them again.”

Scooter Hightower (2-1) continued his late-season surge by pitching five scoreless innings for the win. The right-hander has not allowed an earned run in his past 24 innings.

Brian Keller (10-9) took the loss for Trenton, giving up five runs — four earned — on seven hits in three innings.

The Curve got to Keller for three big runs in the second inning, the first coming home on an RBI single by George. Ke’Bryan Hayes followed with a two-run single to make it 3-0, an early lead that Altoona needed badly after getting outscored 18-2 in the first three games of the series.

“(Those runs) were pretty huge because the last three games we hadn’t been playing our team ball, what we usually play,” George said. “So to come out and get some runs early, I think it kind of settles us in and gives us more confidence.”

George driving in the first big run of the game was an example of why he was named the team’s unsung hero during a pregame awards ceremony. This Curve team has a number of highly rated prospects, and they are a big reason for the success this year, but there also are a lot of role players such as George who have contributed big performances all year.

“On every great team you’ll have those type of guys that just come to work every day and are consistent and get the job done constantly, and that’s what George does,” Ryan said. “He puts together such a professional at-bat. … You talk about an unsung hero, that’s the reason why he got the award.”

Game recap

Key player: 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes went 2-for-3 with two RBIs.

Key play: 1B Jordan George had an RBI single and then Hayes a two-run single to give the Curve a 3-0 lead in the second.

Key stat: The Curve finished 40-29 at home, which is currently the best mark in the EL, and the season attendance average of 4,571 is the largest in 10 years.

How they scored

Bottom 2nd: Alemais walked, scored on George single (1-0); Pabst walked, scored along with George on Hayes single (3-0).

Bottom 3rd: Jhang singled, scored on Saez error (4-0); Alemais singled, scored on Pabst double play groundout (5-0).

Top 9th: Jackson singled, scored on Caldwell single (5-1).

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: 1B Will Craig was named the Curve’s team MVP in an awards ceremony before Thursday’s regular-season home finale. Craig, an EL end of season All-Star, is tied for the league lead with 98 RBIs, the second-highest figure in Curve history. Craig is batting .245 with 20 homers, 28 doubles and a .764 OPS.

SAFE AT FIRST: LHP Cam Vieaux was selected as the Curve’s Pitcher of the Year. Vieaux is 9-5 with a 3.59 ERA in 15 starts, giving up just 79 hits in 87 2.3 innings with 72 strikeouts and only 17 walks.

STEALING SECOND: 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes was the easy choice for Defender of the Year. He has just six errors in 114 games and is on pace to have perhaps the greatest defensive season in Eastern League history by a third baseman.

ROUNDING THIRD: Utility man Jordan George was named the team’s Unsung Hero. SS Cole Tucker was given the Fan Appreciation Award. And utility man Logan Ratledge was named Teammate of the Year, a fitting award given he had to help the club during several tough situations by pitching — and pitching very well, with a 2.08 ERA in 4-plus innings over three appearances, plus a save in an extra-inning win.

HEADING HOME: The Curve are tied with New Hampshire for the EL’s best record (75-59), and they have a winning record against both the Fisher Cats and Akron, while going .500 against Trenton. But Altoona has struggled mightily against Bowie, going just 2-7, and with the way the Baysox are playing now, the next four games on the road should be very difficult. Akron, meanwhile, closes with four games at Erie.

— Cory Giger