Giger: Curve resembling 2017 title team

There’s something about this year’s Curve team that’s starting to look more and more similar to the gritty, clutch 2017 Eastern League championship squad.

That was my first thought following Altoona’s come-from-behind 3-2 victory over Erie on Sunday to wrap up the first half of the Eastern League schedule. The Curve struck out 17 times and managed just two hits in that game — both by Bligh Madris — yet somehow found a way to win despite the offensive inconsistency.

Madris delivered a clutch two-run double in the sixth inning for the lead. It was just the kind of hit that the 2017 team came up with time and time again down the stretch to get into the playoffs and eventually win the title.

“It’s a very similar feeling. I agree with you 100 percent,” manager Michael Ryan said when I mentioned the 2017 comparison.

“It seems like it’s a clutch hit from a different guy each night, or it seems like it’s a big zero out of the bullpen or a big start when we need it.”

Second baseman Mitchell Tolman is one of the few players from that 2017 title team also on this year’s club. Tolman had several big hits late in the 2017 campaign, including a walk-off three-run homer in the final game of the regular season.

The Curve didn’t lose a game after Tolman’s dramatic homer entering those playoffs, going 6-0 in the postseason to sweep Bowie and Trenton and win the EL crown.

Tolman said he “definitely” sees similarities between this year and 2017.

“Championship teams or really good teams that I’ve been on all seem to have that quality or trait to them, where even if it’s not the most perfect game all around, guys find a way to win,” he said.

“Someone will get hit by a pitch and get on, steal a base and then we’ll get a base hit and that scores him. There’s other ways like that, and I think those are traits that go with good teams in general. They’re not up there just hitting, just pitching, They find other ways to win and to get things done.”

The Curve entered the All-Star break with the second-best record in the Eastern League at 47-38. They have the best overall record in the Western Division and are a season-high nine games over .500 following a three-game sweep of Erie over the weekend.

For comparison, the 2017 Curve team was 46-41 on this date, so this year’s club is on a better pace. (And for what it’s worth, the 2010 EL title team was an impressive 53-34 on this date, while the 2004 team that reached the EL Championship Series also was 53-34).

The big difference this year is that the Curve still have a lot of work to do just to get into the playoffs. They’d be in terrific shape under the league’s old full-season format, but with the EL switching to halves this year, Altoona is 2 1/2 games out of first right now and would be on the outside looking in if the playoffs started today.

That won’t be the case if this team continues to scratch and claw to earn big wins over the next two months.

“It just shows you the makeup of the group,” Ryan said of the team’s clutch play. “It’s comparable as well with the 2017 team because they’re in and they believe that they can be in each game.

“Sometimes they’ll do just enough, sometimes it’s just not enough. You know that you’re going to play close games every day, and the mindset becomes you’ve got to do the little things correctly in order to stay competitive, and that’s the good thing about this club.”

There have been a lot of ups and downs with this team because of injuries and roster movement, but Ryan has done an absolutely tremendous job of keeping everything on an even keel to help the club get on a roll.

This season has proven that Ryan is the best manager in Curve history.

It looked like the team was in big trouble in early June, dropping five games below .500 (24-29), but it has gone 23-9 since.

“We all had a group talk as a team and were like, ‘What’s going on with us right now? What do we have to do in the workday to fix things and get it right? How can we just go out and compete better every single night?'” Madris said.

“We figured out we just needed to take less reps and relax a little bit and not be as tense. It’s really showed. Some guys found new rhythms and new work ethics that have worked for us this year.”

It will take a little luck, everyone staying healthy and the current roster remaining mostly intact, but if all that happens, this Curve team very well could be in position to match the 2017 club by winning a championship.

“That’s a thought that goes through my head,” Tolman said. “I don’t have a doubt about it that we definitely could.”

Cory Giger can be reached at cgiger@altoonamirror.com.

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