‘This team belongs to Altoona’ — Big crowd shows up for final home game of Curve season
Tonight: Altoona at Harrisburg, 7 p.m.
Pitchers: Curve RHP Beau Sulser (8-2, 2.60) vs. Senators RHP Kyle McGowin (0-1, 3.20)
Record: 33-35 (second half); 69-67 (overall)
There will be no Eastern League title or playoff appearance for the Curve this year, but Thursday’s home finale showed why the franchise and the team have a lot to celebrate.
Altoona won its fourth straight game, 3-2 over Akron in a nailbiter, and continues to close strong looking to finish with a winning record for the year.
The final home game drew 7,038 fans, and the Curve finished with their best season of attendance in 11 years. Both the average per game (4,604) and overall attendance (308,464) are the highest figures since 2008, and both numbers rose for the third straight year.
Since the Curve’s inception in 1999, Altoona has always been the second-smallest Double-A market, behind only Jackson, Tenn. Despite the city’s continuing population drop — Altoona had 49,363 people in 1999 but is down to 44,098 now — the baseball franchise’s attendance has remained strong.
The Curve averaged 4,695 fans per game in year one and 4,604 in their 21st season, showing great staying power at the turnstiles.
“This team belongs to Altoona,” Curve owner Joan Lozinak said.
“It’s fantastic,” owner Bob Lozinak said of the attendance numbers. “I can take you to a lot of places that have five times the population that aren’t doing what we are. So we must be doing something right, and we’re grateful for that.”
The Curve have been very successful on the field over the years, winning two Eastern League titles (2010 and ’17) and making the playoffs nine times, including each of the past four seasons.
There was a time when this year’s team had good playoff hopes, but a second-half slump ended those. The team has overcome that slump, however, and put together a solid finish to give itself a chance at a winning record.
The Curve finished off a four-game sweep of Akron on Thursday to improve to 69-67 with just four games left this weekend at Harrisburg.
“I’m extremely proud,” Curve manager Michael Ryan said of the solid finish.
“There’s a lot of teams in our situation that would just be looking forward to the end and knowing that they’re going to be home in five days. But for them to realize they’ve still got a job to do — we’re going to respect the game and we’re going to play it hard — that’s what you try to instill in each one of them. I’m just extremely proud and lucky.”
One of the most memorable aspects of this season will be how the Curve dominated their longtime nemesis, Akron (60-76), which is having one of its worst seasons since Altoona arrived in the Eastern League.
The Curve opened the season with a four-game sweep at Akron, something that had never occurred in franchise history. And now, Altoona has wrapped up its home schedule with another four-game sweep of the RubberDucks.
The Curve finished 14-4 against Akron, including 6-1 at Canal Park and 8-3 at PNG Field. Compare those to the all-time numbers, and it’s quite a difference. The RubberDucks are 234-205 against Altoona since 1999, including 123-86 at Canal Park, and have tormented the Curve in the playoffs, eliminating them in all five postseason meetings over the years.
This week’s four-game sweep, thanks in large part to tremendous pitching, has put the Curve in prime position to finish above .500. That accomplishment would mean a lot to the players, especially since this year’s team did not have a bunch of highly rated prospects.
“It would be really cool to see just with all the papers before the year, from what I’ve heard, not really giving us a chance,” team MVP Jared Oliva said. “It really just shows how far we’ve come as a squad and the people that we bring up that are new and how much of an impact they can have on our team.”
Ryan also pointed out how the club has put together a stronger season than most expected.
“From outside the room there weren’t many high expectations that we had going into the season. That’s just the truth,” the manager said. “They used that as fuel.
“When you look back at it, a lot of guys, when they go home after the season, they can be proud knowing they competed in Double-A. A lot of them weren’t necessarily expected to do so, and they can hold their heads up high and tell themselves that they had a pretty good year here.”
SUBHD: Game recap
Key player: LHP Cam Vieaux tossed 7 1/3 shutout innings, allowing just two hits and striking out 10 to win for the Curve.
Key play: Altoona scored two big insurance runs in the eighth inning for a 3-0 lead, then held off an Akron rally in the ninth.
Key stat: The Curve averaged 4,604 fans per game and drew 308,464 fans for the season, the highest figures in both categories since 2008.
SUBHD: How they scored
Bottom 1st: Pope singled, scored on Cruz single (1-0).
Bottom 8th: Cruz singled, scored on Madris double (2-0); Suiter sacrifice fly scored Madris (3-0).
Top 9th: Rodriguez walked, Call singled, both scored on Gonzalez single (3-2).
Covering the bases
LEADING OFF: The Curve handed out their season awards prior to the game. CF Jared Oliva was named team MVP; RHP Pedro Vasquez and RHP Beau Sulser were named co-Pitchers of the Year; INF Brett Pope was named Unsung Hero; and RH closer Matt Eckelman was named Fireman of the Year.
SAFE AT FIRST: Oliva, who also was selected to the EL postseason All-Star team, got off to a slow start but has been terrific since early June. He’s hitting .281 with six homers, 42 RBIs and 35 steals. He’s one of the most improved players in Curve history from the start of a season to the end. “It’s cool to look back on, seeing where we started the beginning of the season to now,” Oliva said of his MVP honor. “All the credit goes to the coaches, just putting in the hours with them learning the game and the work reps on the field. So it’s definitely a cool recognition.”
STEALING SECOND: LHP Cam Vieaux (4-4) had another stellar outing Thursday, blanking Akron on two hits over 7 1/3 innings with 10 strikeouts and three walks. He will finish with a 2.23 ERA for the Curve.
ROUNDING THIRD: RHP Jesus Liranzo ran into trouble up 3-0 in the ninth as he allowed two runs before closing it out for his first save. Akron starter Sam Hentges (2-13) took the loss.
HEADING HOME: RHP Matt Eckelman was promoted to Triple-A Indianapolis on Thursday. He saved 23 games this season and 34 over the past two years, four shy of the franchise record held by RHP Montana DuRapau. RHP Shea Murray was promoted from high-A Bradenton to take Eckelman’s roster spot.
— Cory Giger