Donaldson sparks Akron

By Cory Giger

AKRON, Ohio — As soon as former American League MVP Josh Donaldson was added to Akron’s roster, you just knew he was going to torment the Curve somehow in their playoff series.

Sure enough, Donaldson drilled a go-ahead two-run homer in the third inning to help the RubberDucks to a 5-2 win over Altoona in game 1 of the Western Division playoffs Wednesday night before 3,207 fans at Canal Park.

The Curve have now lost nine consecutive postseason games at Canal Park going back to 2003, and they’ll have to battle back in the series if they’re to beat Akron in the playoffs for the first time ever.

“We had chances,” Curve shortstop Cole Tucker said.

They did, indeed, but managed only five hits in scoring just two runs. And that’s not going to cut it in the playoffs, regardless of who on the other team hits a home run.

“Two runs and five hits in a playoff game, it’s not good enough,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said. “You’ve got to score more than two runs to be able to win. They did tonight, and we didn’t.”

The Curve went 6-0 in the postseason last year to win the Eastern League title, so this was Ryan’s first playoff loss with the club.

Altoona’s best chance came in the seventh inning when, down 4-2, Tucker stepped to the plate with the bases loaded. But he grounded out to second to end the threat.

“We were saying before the game that two-out RBIs were going to be the difference maker, and they were,” Tucker said. “We didn’t really have any and they did, and that’s why they’re 1-0.”

The Curve scored a run in the first inning, then Akron came back with three in the third, capped by Donaldson’s go-ahead homer.

Why is the 2015 AL MVP playing in a Double-A playoff series?

Well, the Indians have made it a habit over the years of helping Akron in the playoffs by adding a Triple-A player or two, and there have been MLB rehabbers, as well. That sort of stuff is frowned upon, and people around the EL have complained about it, but there’s only so much the league can do to prevent it.

The Donaldson situation is different. He’s not with Akron in some attempt by the Indians to win an EL title. The Indians acquired the third baseman in a trade with the Blue Jays on Friday, but Donaldson is coming back from a left calf strain and is on the MLB disabled list until Sept. 11.

With Triple-A Columbus’ season done, Akron is the best place for Donaldson to get playing time to get him ready for a return to the majors.

“It’s definitely a unique situation,” Tucker said. “We’re not upset about it. It’s the game. The Indianas traded for a player, they’re trying to win, we understand it. We believe and have confidence in ourselves that we can go out there and beat anybody.”

Still, it had to be a feeling of, “Oh, jeez” when Donaldson hit the home run. Tucker was asked if that hurt the Curve from a mental standpoint.

“It was one of those things where it’s like, damn, really wish he wasn’t injured so he wasn’t here,” Tucker said. “But he’s a guy that we all know, so it’s cool to see him go about his business. But ultimately we’re up there trying to beat him.”

Ryan, Tucker and Curve lefty Cam Vieaux all praised Donaldson for hitting a tough pitch.

“It was a good pitch,” Vieaux said. “He’s a big leaguer. If you show him something once and come right back with it, he’s probably going to hit it to the moon like he did.”

Vieaux later added a golden comment.

“If I’m in the situation again,” he said, “I’ll probably throw him the same thing and he’ll get out. I think he got lucky on that one.”

Whether that was the case or not, Donaldson crushed the pitch over the wall in right-center. A firm believer in the launch angle part of hitting, Donaldson belted 41 homers in 2015 when he was MVP, followed by 37 in 2016 and 33 last year.

He has only five homers in 36 big league games this season. But Donaldson did hit a grand slam in a rehab game for Columbus on Monday, so he now has two homers in his last two games.

“I feel pretty good,” Donaldson said. “(My) rhythm, timing, pitch recognition feels good. My body is feeling even better. Any time my body is feeling right, I’m going to perform to my capability.”

Vieaux gave up four runs — three earned — on five hits in five innings to take the loss.

Right-hander Kyle Dowdy was sharp for Akron after a shaky first inning, earning the win by allowing two runs on just four hits over 6 2/3 frames with six strikeouts and two walks. Dowdy was throwing his fastball 95 mph, and Curve hitters had a hard time catching up all night.

“Credit to Dowdy, he was up there in velocity today, something that we didn’t see (before),” Ryan said. “(We have to) be ready for the fastball and make the adjustment.”

The Curve got a couple of runners on base in the ninth, and Stephen Alemais came up as the tying run. But Jordan Milbrath retired him on a fly ball to left to end the game and earn a save.

SUBHD: Game recap

Key player: RHP Kyle Dowdy held the Curve to two runs on four hits over 6 2/3 innings to win for Akron.

Key play: 3B Josh Donaldson’s two-run homer in the third broke up a tie game and put Akron on top to stay.

Key stat: The Curve had only five hits, which more than even Donaldson’s homer is the reason they lost the game.

SUBHD: How they scored

Top 1st: Tucker walked, scored on Reynolds sacrifice fly (1-0).

Bottom 3rd: Carter doubled, scored on Clement single (1-1); Donaldson two-run homer scored Clement (1-3).

Bottom 5th: Krieger walked, scored on Hayes error (1-4).

Top 6th: Tucker tripled, scored on Hayes groundout (2-4).

Bottom 7th: Clement singled, scored on Rodriguez single (2-5).

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: The Curve will turn to RHP Eduardo Vera tonight to try and even up the series. Vera has been superb lately, going 7-0 since July 12. Manager Michael Ryan was asked if Vera can get the team back in the series with a good game. “He’s going to have to,” Ryan said. “I’m very confident in what he’s done, the way he’s finished the year. I’ll sleep good tonight. I know we have a chance. That’s all we’re asking for.”

SAFE AT FIRST: 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes made an error that let a run score in the fifth as Akron took a 4-1 lead. Hayes committed just six errors all season and had the highest fielding percentage by a third baseman (.978) ever recorded in Eastern League history.

STEALING SECOND: Akron’s Canal Park has long been a house of horrors for the Curve, who have an all-time record of 82-132 there.

ROUNDING THIRD: The Curve’s only playoff victory at Akron came in game 2 of the 2003 series when Kevin Nicholson hit two homers, including the game winner in the ninth. The Mirror’s headline the following day cleverly read, “Nicholson’s jack.”

HEADING HOME: 3B Josh Donaldson’s Twitter handle is BringerOfRain20, a reference to him hitting high home runs that bring rain. His Twitter picture is comical, as it’s a radar image over the Cleveland area filled with green, yellow and red colors indicating rain.

— Cory Giger