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Curve close first half with bullpen-led win

The last time Brandon Waddell took the mound for the Altoona Curve, it didn’t go as planned.

It was May 25 of last year and he gave up seven runs in five innings in what would be his only loss at the Double-A level as the Curve lost 14-2 on the road against the Harrisburg Senators.

On Tuesday night, after making 21 relief appearances for Triple-A Indianapolis this season, Waddell was back on the mound, facing the Senators. But the outcome was much different this time around.

In what was another scheduled “bullpen game,” Waddell pitched four strong innings, allowing just one runs on two hits as the Curve were able to close out the first half of the Eastern League season with a 3-1 victory over Harrisburg.

“He did a great job attacking some hitters and getting early contact,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said of Waddell’s performance. “In my opinion, he could’ve went five (innings).”

But instead of Waddell heading back out for the fifth and putting him in line for the victory, it was reliever Beau Sulser who came in and shut down the Senators lineup for three straight innings, earning his fifth win of the season in the process.

“I love it,” Sulser said of being the Curve’s long reliever. “I love coming in and knowing that I’m going to go multiple innings. I like to set hitters up and I don’t mind facing hitters a second time. Yesterday I knew (today) I was going to pitch the fourth or fifth inning for two or three innings. Knowing that and being able to prepare for that makes it much easier.”

After Sulser cruised through the first inning, retiring the first three batters in order, he found himself with a baserunner on first after a leadoff walk in the sixth inning. But an inning-ending double play gave Sulser all the confidence he needed to pitch the seventh.

“Right when I got out of that, I’m like, ‘I got one more in me,” Sulser said. “I think that was a big part of it, getting that double play. If that inning goes too much longer, I’m approaching my pitch count where maybe they might pinch hit for me.”

Blake Cederlind and Matt Eckelman eached tossed a scoreless inning to close out an impressive win to end the first half of the season.

“Harrisburg’s a great team, they won the first half for a reason,” Curve right fielder Hunter Owen said. “Grinding out a win tonight the way we did is definitely going to be a momentum booster.”

The Curve had to scratch and claw for all of three of their runs on Tuesday night at Peoples Natural Gas Field. Altoona scored a run in each of the first three innings of the ballgame but had to play some small ball in order to get each of them across home plate.

“If you can manufacture runs and score in three straight innings, it’s going to be a good game,” Ryan said. “There’s different nights where you’ve gotta do different things based on who’s in the lineup and who’s hitting in that inning. We have guys that can hit the ball out of the ballpark, but we also have some speed and guys that can hit-and-run and bunt. There’s gonna be nights where we’re going to have to use all the weapons. Tonight, it was just a small ball type of game.”

“We’re not going to be the team that’s going to bang the ball out of the yard a whole lot. It’s just not how we’re built,” Owen added. “For us to just scratch and claw runs to get on the board, it’s huge. We can’t bank on hitting and three-run or two-run home run every time. Just having quality at-bats every time we’re up there is key to our success.”

Centerfielder Jared Oliva was in the No. 3 spot in the lineup for just the second time this season, but he carried the Curve offense on Tuesday, finishing 3-for-3 with a double and a walk.

“I thought it was the best played game he’s played this year,” Ryan said of Oliva. “Sometimes it’s a psychological thing when you’re not the first guy going up to the plate. If you’re in the three hole, you can have two at-bats where you’re watching the pitcher and what he’s doing. I think that helped him tonight.”

Up-and-down the roster, the Curve have been able to close out the first half on the right note. They’re now 12-4 in the month of June, the best record of any team in the Eastern League this month.

“I don’t think we’re going to go into tomorrow saying, ‘It’s a clean slate,’ because we’re playing so well,” Ryan said. “We’re just trying to ride the momentum of how we’ve been playing. June’s been a really good month for us.”

Game recap

Key player: Jared Oliva went 3-for-3 with a double and a walk, good for his first three-hit game of the season.

Key play: Second baseman Mitchell Tolman made an impressive diving stop to retire the final out in the top of the eighth inning.

Key stat: Reliever Matt Eckelman recorded his ninth save of the season, which is tied for third in the Eastern League as the first half of the season comes to an end.

How they scored

Bottom 1st: Reyes singled, scored on Tolman’s groundout (1-0).

Bottom 2nd: Pabst doubled, scored on Reyes’ fielder’s choice (2-0).

Top 3rd: Goeddel reached on fielder’s choice, scored on Mapes’ double (2-1).

Bottom 3rd: Oliva doubled, scored on Pabst’s sacrifice flyout to center (3-1).

PNG Field into fan-vote finals

The Curve pulled off a big upset in final four voting for the best ballpark in Double-A, and now Peoples Natural Gas Field is in the championship round for the second straight year.

Ballpark Digest runs a contest each year to find the best ballpark at each level in the minor leagues.

PNG Field advanced to the finals last season but lost to Hartford’s Dunkin’ Donuts Park. That new ballpark, which opened in 2017, won the fan vote contest for the second year in a row.

Dunkin’ Donuts Park was the No. 1 seed entering this year’s contest, while PNG Field was the No. 21 seed. But Altoona’s 20-year-old ballpark won earlier rounds to advance to the final four, then overcame an early deficit to storm back and beat Hartford.

PNG Field once trailed 60-40 percent in the contest, but voting got tight as the deadline approached at 4 p.m. Tuesday. A slew of late votes helped the Curve win the contest, 51-49 percent, by a total of 119 votes.

Now, PNG Field is going up against Hodgetown, the brand new home of the Amarillo (Texas) Sod Poodles, in the finals. That ballpark just opened this year.

Voting in the finals will last until Sunday night, and fans can vote once a day from each of their devices at ballparkdigest.com. As of late Tuesday night, PNG Field trailed in the early voting, 56-44 percent.

“We have always believed that this ballpark is most certainly one of the best in minor league baseball, and our fan base proves that,” Curve general manager Derek Martin said. “We are the second-smallest market in Double A, but our fans have more heart than most big-market teams, and we cherish that.”

— Cory Giger

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