Nemesis awaiting Curve
Tonight: Altoona at Akron, 6:35 p.m., game 1 Western Division playoffs
Pitchers: Curve LHP Cam Vieaux (9-5, 3.59) vs. Rubber Ducks RHP Kyle Dowdy (1-4, 6.52)
Notable: The Curve went 12-10 against Akron during the regular season
By Cory Giger
One of the most noteworthy and historical games in Curve history occurred on Sept. 4, 2000, and wouldn’t you know it, Akron beat Altoona.
It was the start of a curse that still exists, 18 years and one day later.
But starting tonight and over the next few days, the Curve have a chance to finally end that curse. They’ll play Akron in the best-of-five Western Division playoffs, with the first two games on the road, followed by home games Friday through Sunday (the final two if necessary).
“We’re very respectful of Akron,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said. “Confidence is a word that we would use going into any series, if you believe in your club and its strengths. But we know we have our work cut out for us.”
They also have a lot of history working against them.
Never in franchise history have the Curve beaten Akron straight up when it’s been for all the marbles. They have met four times in the Eastern League divisional playoffs — in 2003, ’05, ’06 and ’16 — and the Aeros/RubberDucks have eliminated Altoona each and every time.
Going back to 2000, when the teams battled on the final day of the regular season with a playoff berth at stake, everything has gone Akron’s way.
On that fateful and curse-starting day of Sept. 4, 2000, the Curve retired Adam Hyzdu’s No. 16 jersey following the game. And the start of the contest will always be known as the Joe Beimel game.
Beimel recorded an incredible 10 strikeouts in the game’s first 11 outs, doing so with Pirates general manager Cam Bonifay in the stands. So impressed was Bonifay by that one outing from Beimel that he let the left-hander skip Triple-A — which is unheard of for the Pirates — and gave him a spot on the Bucs’ opening-day roster to start the following season.?But there was a catch for Beimel in that remarkable start vs. Akron. Despite his strikeout exploits, he and the Curve trailed, 1-0, because of a pair of errors in the third inning by catcher Lee Evans.
The game was tied at 1-1, then the Aeros won with a ninth-inning run off closer Brian Smith, who had been close to untouchable with a 0.71 ERA for the Curve.
That game, of course, was many years ago. And the previous playoff meetings between these clubs — two of the cream of the crop franchises in the Eastern League — included different players and different coaches on both sides.
So in essence, none of the past really matters for this particular series. Or at least, one wouldn’t think so.
What does matter, what has helped Akron beat Altoona so many times before, is that the Cleveland Indians have been exceptional for a long, long time at how they go about their development process at the Double-A level.
“Whether you’re playing Akron in April or playing Akron in June or at the end of the year, you know that you have to play well in order to compete with them,” Ryan said. “Every year, their organizational philosophies are they pay attention to the details and play the game the right way.
“They just don’t make mistakes. And if you make the mistakes, they take advantage of them so well.”
The Pirates and Indians have long had a lot in common when it comes to Double-A success. Both organizations care greatly about winning at this level in the minor leagues, which may sound somewhat trivial, but that is not the case for every big league organization.
“The Cleveland Indians and the Pittsburgh Pirates are very similar type of people that run the organization,” Akron manager Tony Mansolino said earlier this season. “Solid people that care about the players, people that care about the staff.”
The Curve are in the playoffs for the ninth time in their 20 years, searching for their second straight EL title and third overall (also in 2010). Akron is in the playoffs for a 10th time since 1999 and has won a league-high five championships during that span.
“If we don’t get two or three teams in the playoffs in our minor leagues, it’s kind of a disappointment,” Akron infielder Joe Sever, who since has been promoted to Triple-A, said last month. “We stress winning. I think it’s an important tool to learn in the minor leagues.”
Sever also discussed one of the things Akron has always done well and that has given the Curve fits over the years.
“We really stress baserunning,” he said. “We do it since spring training, and I think you see it, how aggressive we are. We’re OK with making aggressive outs, pushing the limit and making them make plays, just putting pressure on their defense.”
As for the “Indian way” of development, Sever said, “If I can sum it up into one thing, it’s doing the little things right and better than the opponent.”
The Curve will pin their hopes in game 1 tonight on lefty Cam Vieaux, who went 9-5 with a 3.59 ERA in 15 starts. Vieaux was 2-1 with a 3.06 ERA in three starts against Akron during the regular season, giving up just 14 hits and six runs over 17 2/3 innings.
The last time Vieaux pitched in Akron, he gave up five runs on seven hits in 4 2/3 innings in a loss July 25. He held the RubberDucks to one run on five hits over seven innings in a home victory Aug. 5.
“Just the mindset,” Ryan said when asked why he likes Vieaux in the opener. “You try to get the guy in game 1 that will set the tone. Cam being left-handed, Akron will have some very good left-hand hitters,
and they like to run a lot, as well. … I like the way Cam’s been going about his business.”
Eduardo Vera, who is 8-0 since July 12, including two wins over Akron, will start game 2 for the Curve.
The RubberDucks will start right-hander Kyle Dowdy tonight. He previously was with Erie before getting traded to the Indians at the trade deadline, and he’s had a rough season, going 4-8 with a 5.68 ERA in 19 games (11 starts). The Curve have tagged him for 13 runs in 12 innings over three starts, one with Akron (six runs in four innings).
A key difference in this series compared to past playoff matchups between the clubs is that the Curve won the regular-season division title and will have home-field advantage. Akron was the division champ each of the previous four times they met in the postseason.
One noteworthy element to the series is that Akron will have the services of 2015 American League MVP Josh Donaldson, who is on the MLB disabled list until Sept. 11 with a calf injury and is rehabbing with the RubberDucks. Donaldson was traded from the Toronto Blue Jays to the Indians on Friday.
There have been situations in the past when the Indians have added a Triple-A player or major league rehabber to Akron’s roster for the playoffs against the Curve. That hasn’t always sat well with Altoona personnel, but this situation with Donaldson is uniquely different.
“No, absolutely not,” Ryan said when asked if he has any problems with Donaldson playing for Akron. “This is a time of year where Josh Donaldson is an MVP caliber player, a superstar in the major leagues. In order for him to sustain that, he has to get at-bats, and the only place for him to get at-bats is at Akron.
“It was expected. It’s no problem. I’m excited to see him play. There’s no issue there. It is what it is. If Josh Donaldson hits for the cycle or has 11 RBIs in each game, what can you do? You can’t get mad about it.”