Pitching helps Curve win fourth in a row

Next stop

Tonight: Portland at Altoona, 6:30 p.m.

Pitchers: Curve LHP Sean Brady (2-5, 6.22) vs. Sea Dogs RHP Tanner Houck (5-4, 4.24)

Record: 31-30

Four-man rotations disappeared in baseball decades ago, but for the past four weeks, the Curve have been limited to four starters because of so many injuries throughout the upper levels of the Pirates’ system.

Amazingly enough, Altoona has been able to withstand being short-handed in the rotation to such a strong degree that the club has scratched and clawed its way back above .500.

The Curve won for the fourth time in a row and seventh time in eight games Tuesday night, downing Portland, 5-4, before 4,157 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field. Hunter Owen belted his 14th homer, tying for tops in the Eastern League, and Altoona took the lead with a pair of runs in the seventh inning.

It was a bullpen day once again for the Curve, with Austin Coley serving as the opener. He had a rough first inning, giving up two runs, and departed after that, but the rest of the bullpen turned in a solid night to keep the team in the game.

Curve manager Michael Ryan said he’s seen minor league clubs have to turn to a four-man rotation for a couple of series, but not for such an extended period like this team has done for about a month.

“That’s six times in a row through the rotation where we’ve had to go with a bullpen day,” Ryan said. “It is what it is. The guys have been doing a great job.

“Luckily, it’s been really good because we’ve had off days mixed in, which gives a guy out of the rotation at least an extra day.”

Coley has been a starter throughout his career before becoming a reliever this season. That makes him an easy choice to handle the opener role on bullpen days.

“That was the reason why we decided to go with him is because he’s done it before,” Ryan said. “We tried it with (Matt) Eckelman in Portland, and it’s something he’s never done, so it’s a whole different mindset. It’s a situation that we shouldn’t have probably put Eckelman in. We just wanted to get him out of his comfort zone for a developmental day.”

Eckelman struggled that day in Portland two weeks ago in a loss, and Coley had some issues Tuesday. But the Curve still found a way to win Tuesday night, and if you can get a win on a bullpen day — especially with as good as the team’s rotation has been — it can lead to a prolonged stretch of good results.

Altoona has seen that this month, with an EL-best 8-2 record in June.

The fact that the Curve are back above .500 is an impressive feat, given all the ups and downs and roster movement the club has had to deal with because of the Pirates’ vast number of injuries.

Altoona has struggled at home for much of the season, but they pulled even at 15-15 at PNG Field with Tuesday’s victory.

“This group is very resilient,” Owen said. “We’ve had our fair share of ups and downs, so we’ve kind of been through the ropes there. But every time you look at somebody in front of you or behind you, we’re very confident in their abilities. We’re a tight, close-knit group that has confidence in one another.”

Brett Pope’s RBI single tied the game at 4-4 for Altoona in the seventh, and Jared Oliva followed with a hit that brought home Arden Pabst with the decisive run. Logan Hill had a two-run double in the first for the Curve.

Beau Sulser turned in a strong extended outing in relief after Coley was pulled, going five innings and allowing just one run. Joel Cesar (1-1) followed and gave up one run in two hits but was credited with the win.

Eckelman finished it off in the ninth for his seventh save.

Portland starter Denyi Reyes (1-8) dropped another decision, giving up five runs in six innings.

SUBHD: Game recap

Key player: RHP Beau Sulser tossed five innings of relief and gave up just one run, keeping the Curve in the game until their offense could pull ahead.

Key play: Altoona scored twice in the seventh for the lead, getting RBI singles from SS Brett Pope and CF Jared Oliva.

Key stat: The Curve are back above .500 (31-30) after winning four in a row and seven of eight.

SUBHD: How they scored

Top 1st: Duran tripled, scored on Nunez single (0-1); Netzer single scored Nunez (0-2).

Bottom 1st: Oliva singled, Tolman singled, both scored on Hill double (2-2).

Top 4th: Netzer singled, scored on Rivera single (2-3).

Bottom 4th: Owen solo homer (3-3).

Top 7th: Dalbec solo homer (3-4).

Bottom 7th: Madris doubled, scored on Pope single (4-4); Pabst singled, scored on Oliva single (5-4).

Covering the bases

LEADING OFF: Prized 3B prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes left Tuesday’s game early for Triple-A Indianapolis with an undisclosed injury. He tried to make a diving play and suffered some type of hand injury.

SAFE AT FIRST: One of the main reasons the Curve have been so successful for years is they’ve played good baseball for an entire season, allowing them to stay in a playoff hunt. Things are different this season with split halves in the Eastern League, and the Curve will not make the playoffs in the first half. But they have played well enough with a 31-30 record that, if it were still a full-season race, they’d be in the mix in second place in the Western Division.

STEALING SECOND: “Our goal is to play our best baseball at the end of the year, and that takes the grind out of it a little bit because we know that we’re going to be playing well at the end,” manager Michael Ryan said. “It’s the middle of June now, and these guys are showing up every day the same, they’re showing up, they play hard, that’s all you can ask. If you were 14-15 games out, maybe those days become different. You never know. Or maybe they don’t think that they have anything to play for instead of playing for themselves.”

ROUNDING THIRD: “One of the most important things, especially in a season that’s 140 games, is to not get too high or too low and to take it a day at a time,” 3B Hunter Owen said. “You can’t really look at, man, I hope we finish .500 or where we’re at in the standings. We’ve just got to show up and play every single day, and if you show up like that and play each game like your last, I think it will pan out.”

HEADING HOME: Portland has the EL’s worst record at 21-39, but the Sea Dogs have gone 8-8 in their past 16 games.

— Cory Giger


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