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Loss has Curve manager speaking the truth

Next stop

Tonight: Altoona at Erie, 7:05 p.m.

Pitchers: Curve RHP James Marvel (4-5, 3.81) vs. SeaWolves RHP Anthony Castro (1-1, 6.35)

Record: 24-29

It’s time for some members of the Curve to start playing with a sense of urgency in their careers and to stop taking the game and their opportunities for granted.

That was the message from manager Michael Ryan in some candid comments made after yet another inconsistent showing by the club Sunday.

Altoona managed just five hits — none after the fourth inning — in a 4-1 loss to New Hampshire before 4,227 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field. The Curve are five games below .500 at 24-29, they’re only 11-14 at home and have one of the Eastern League’s weaker offenses.

After discussing some of the specific offensive concerns, this question (or partial question) was posed to Ryan: It’s early June, so you’ve still got a lot of time with these players …

Before the question was finished, Ryan interjected.

“I don’t necessarily agree with that,” he said. “I think there’s not time for some of these guys. They have to realize that. There are some guys in here that could have been let go in spring training, and they weren’t.

“What is (today)? It’s the draft. There’s going to be more players coming in. I just talked to the manager down in extended (spring training), they’re ready to send five guys to (low-A) Greensboro. Five guys go to Greensboro, where do you think five guys got to go? They’ve got to go to (high-A) Bradenton. Five guys go to Bradenton, five guys could possibly come here. So there’s not a lot of time for some of these guys. That’s just the way that they’ve got to look at it.”

This Curve team is not stacked with high draft picks and star prospects, as we’ve seen in recent years, so there aren’t many priority minor leaguers who are guaranteed playing time.

When that’s the case, the players have to continue to earn the playing time they do get, and that can be taken away when they struggle.

“There’s not anybody’s numbers here that are safe, to be honest with you,” Ryan said. “So, whether you get sent down or you go home, you can’t take each day for granted, and it could be your last. I hope that that doesn’t happen. Trust me, I would love to have this club the rest of the year.”

These are the tough lessons that must be learned in Double-A. Most decent prospects get a lot of playing time in the lower minors and get moved up every year even if they don’t put up huge numbers.

But Double-A is where the weeding-out process kicks into high gear, and players who aren’t star prospects have a lot of lessons to learn about the business of baseball.

“It’s important if you realize it,” Ryan said of the lessons in Double-A. “Cole Tucker’s going to get 500 at-bats. Will Craig is going to get 500 at-bats. Other guys aren’t guaranteed that. We don’t have many guys that are guaranteed to get 500 at-bats. I don’t get the phone call from the organization that says this guy has to play a certain amount of days. I don’t get it with guys in that room.”

There is one major exception to Ryan’s comments, and that’s third baseman Hunter Owen, who is having a terrific season and has emerged as a bona fide prime prospect. (See Covering the bases for more on that.)

As for the offensive struggles Sunday and in general, Ryan said the club has one glaring issue.

“I see late on the fastball, whether it’s take first pitch to where we’re not ready to pull the trigger, or if we are pulling the trigger on fastballs it’s late,” the manager said.

“(Whether it’s) 3-0, 3-1, 2-1, any time we’re ahead in the count it’s either weak contact or foul ball into the seats the wrong direction. That’s the first indication you’re just late on the fastball. And then once you start thinking you’ve got to cheat to get to the fastball, the breaking ball’s going to fool you and the offspeed’s going to make you look silly at times. And that’s what’s going on.”

The Curve are last in the EL in home runs with just 31, and Owen has 12 of them. The team also is near the bottom in doubles, slugging percentage and on-base percentage, and the coaches are working on plans to improve in those areas.

“You try different things,” Ryan said. “You try to manufacture runs, we can’t get a bunt down. You try a hit and run, we don’t execute it. You have a plan coming into the game that you might have to small ball, but can’t get a guy on first until there’s two outs.”

The manager also indicated some hitters just haven’t been buying in to the plan.

“As a coaching staff, we’re trying to figure it out: What can we do to reach these guys?” Ryan said. “You also have to buy into the system.

“In the eighth inning we decide that we want to try to work some counts and then take a strike. What happens? A guy 1-0, he wants to swing, put the ball in play. So, if you’re not going to buy into what we’re trying to do here, you’re not going to have the success that you probably should.”

SUBHD: Game recap

Key player: RHP Patrick Murphy held the Curve to one run on five hits over seven innings to win for New Hampshire.

Key play: 2B Santiago Espinal tried and failed to bunt for a hit, then on the next pitch he drilled a solo homer for a 3-1 Fisher Cats lead in the sixth.

Key stat: The Curve are back to five games below .500, matching the season high.

SUBHD: How they scored

Top 1st: Wall doubled, scored on Espinal groundout (0-1).

Bottom 3rd: Pope singled, scored on Oliva groundout (1-1).

Top 5th: Smith singled, scored on Capra single (1-2).

Top 6th: Espinal solo homer (1-3).

Top 8th: Wall doubled, scored on Knight single (1-4).

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: Manager Michael Ryan certainly wasn’t talking about 3B Hunter Owen when he said players aren’t guaranteed their at-bats on this club. “Yeah, of course,” Ryan said. Owen has been fantastic, batting .306 with 12 homers, 37 RBIs and a .953 OPS. He’s tied for the league lead in RBIs and one off the lead in homers. He won Saturday night’s game with a walk-off two-run homer in the ninth.

SAFE AT FIRST: “You look what he’s doing at the plate, conversations that he has with (hitting coach Jon) Nunnally, he’s doing what we’re asking, and the results are showing,” Ryan said. “We’re here to help, and he wants the help. He enjoys the help, and he asks questions, and he wants to learn. Those are the guys that I love to manage.”

STEALING SECOND: Ryan then followed that last statement with this telling one: “It’s the guys that you try to help that always have an answer or think that they’ve got it figured out, those are the guys that make it difficult.”

ROUNDING THIRD: RHP Patrick Murphy (4-5) won for New Hampshire, while LHP Domingo Robles (0-1) took the loss for the Curve, giving up three runs on six hits in six innings. RHP Bryan Baker got his fourth save.

HEADING HOME: The Curve head to Erie for three games starting tonight, then return to PNG Field on Friday to begin a seven-game homestand. Altoona will not face Erie prized RHP Casey Mize in this series. He no-hit the Curve last month.

– Cory Giger

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