ALTOONA, Pa. – There are so many different ways to describe this team and what all transpired over the last week.
Jon Schwind: “We’re resilient.”
Tanner Anderson: “This team is clutch.”
Alex McRae: “We know we are going to win.”
Michael Ryan: “Chemistry. Cohesion. Camaraderie.”
The majority of these players won a championship last season in the Florida State League with the Bradenton Marauders; however, you look up and down this lineup, and you don’t see a roster full of highly-touted prospects.
Sure, you have the Pirates’ top prospect Mitch Keller leading the staff, and there was Cole Tucker who contributed greatly until he broke his hand in Bowie last week. Otherwise, Kevin Kramer and Brandon Waddell are the only others on this current roster who are in our Mid-Season Top 30 Prospect list.
Injuries piled up, too. Waddell was on the disabled list twice with a forearm injury. Logan Hill was brought up to replace Jordan Luplow, and he broke his hand. Michael Suchy was out for quite some time. Kevin Kramer missed months. Dario Agrazal only made one start before getting hurt. The list goes on.
Of course, important players were promoted. Luplow is now roaming the outfield at PNC Park. The Curve’s self-proclaimed MVP Edwin Espinal is playing in Indianapolis. Kevin Newman was promoted just as he was seeming to be breaking out of a season-long slump. The bullpen was completely rebuilt mid-season after Montana DuRapau’s promotion.
It seemed that guys were coming and going daily, but that didn’t matter for the 2017 Altoona Curve.
They aren’t built with a ton of top prospects; rather, they played together as a team and learned how to win as a team. The key word here is “team”. This team, as a whole, was much more than any player individually. They were a group that completely believed in each other, picked each other up, and played for each other.
“I would sum it up as this: they care for one another,” Michael Ryan answered about why this team plays so well together. “The number one ingredient to a championship club is team chemistry, cohesion, and camaraderie. They honestly love one another, and when you have so many guys that get along, they want to perform for each other. That’s exactly what they did. It’s a special group.”
Ryan openly admitted that doubts may have crept into his mind earlier in the year when it just seemed like the turnover of players would be too much for them to overcome. It truly is a testament to how hard these guys battled and how much they wanted it.
“They wanted every second of it,” Ryan said. “They played two unbelievable teams, and to sweep them in the playoffs, it’s hard to imagine.”
First, it was “team” pitching. Of course, Mitch Keller, the Eastern League Postseason MVP, garners most of the hype, especially after his nine inning shutout a week ago and his spectacular performance against a great hitting club on Thursday. As a whole, though, the pitching staff allowed a total of nine earned runs in their 54 innings of work in the playoffs. Guys like Tanner Anderson, Tate Scioneaux, Luis Heredia, and Yeudy Garcia all came out of the bullpen and pitched beautifully, while the starting staff seemingly willed their way into the win column.
Brandon Waddell lived up to his nickname – “Big Game Brandon” – with six scoreless innings earlier in the series. JT Brubaker dialed it up to 99 MPH on Wednesday in Trenton to grab a win. Austin Coley, Alex McRae, and of course, Keller… there is so much to say about these starters.
Altogether, the pitching staff had a batting average against of .196. That came against two of the top three hitting teams in the league.
Next, it was “team” hitting. You never really knew where the production was going to come from on any given night. Elvis Escobar, after really turning it on late in the season, was their best hitter in the playoffs with a .348 average and six RBIs. Michael Suchy, and his .175 average after June 23rd during the regular season, also had a .348 average and a robust .922 OPS in the playoffs.
Jin-De Jhang was terrible at the plate through the early parts of the season after returning from the disabled list. He was the one who came up big tonight with the bases clearing triple to give the Curve a lead that they would never relinquish. He finished with seven hits in the Curve’s six playoff games. Mitchell Tolman, who two weeks ago thought he would be at home on his couch by now, took over leadoff duties after Tucker’s injury and had an on-base percentage of .429 from that spot.
As a team, they hit .273 in the playoffs.
Of course, you can’t forget about “team” defense. They had a .980 fielding percentage and committed only 105 errors during the regular season, both bests in Curve franchise history. They didn’t commit a single error in the championship series against Trenton.
Jerrick Suiter made the seamless transition from playing outfield everyday to playing first base everyday. Elvis Escobar made drastic improvements all season in the outfield. You can’t say enough about Jin-De Jhang’s improvements from behind the plate, from calling a game to receiving to throwing runners out.
Casey Hughston, also thinking his season was over, became an essential defensive replacement late in games.
“We just have the next man up attitude,” Ryan said. “For guys that are filling in, it’s their opportunity to shine. I don’t know what our transaction page looks like, but I’m sure it’s pretty long.”
Mitch Keller described this team as a brotherhood.
“We just love each other,” Keller said. “We all want to win. We show up. Being able to pull it out and go 6-0 in the postseason is just unbelievable.”
Michael Ryan seconded that sentiment in his post-game address to his championship team.
— Sean McCool (@NotSoMcCool) September 15, 2017
And this brotherhood simply knew how to step it up when it mattered most. Austin Coley, for example, was on the mound in a playoff clinching game, a division clinching game, and a series clinching game. He worked a total of 21 innings and allowed just one total run in those games.
“When it really matters, this group of guys really know how to turn it on,” Coley said. “Balance to not get to high or too low during the year. We knew we’d be in it at the end. We’re really good under pressure, know how to compete, and win tough games.”
Michael Ryan told me before the playoffs started that, for his team to win in the playoffs, they needed grit and pitching. They got both.
— Sean McCool (@NotSoMcCool) September 15, 2017
Jon Schwind, the leader of the Curve clubhouse, said that they got to this point because they are the hardest working team in the league.
“We really are resilient,” Schwind said. All of these guys have worked extremely hard. They play hard. That’s something that you rarely see with a full team: everybody plays so hard. When we came back [home] after a 2-0 lead, everyone in here knew we would win the third one. I don’t mean that being arrogant or cocky, I just mean that guys are very confident, and you’ll always get the best out of everybody.”
It’s honestly a huge testament to the Pirates’ organization. They have players who work extremely hard and know their roles. In the case of the Curve this season, players played up to and over their potential, displaying their preparedness and ability to adapt.
“It shows how deep the organization is in general,” Wyatt Mathisen said. “They just step up and fill the role, and they perform at a high level.”
The most common phrase being used after the game was “two-peat”, referring to their championship run and victory over the Yankees’ High-A club last season in Bradenton. As I was walking out of the clubhouse, after all of the champagne was popped, there was conversation from afar talking about next year.
Hey, Indianapolis. I hope you are ready, because this team – this brotherhood – really knows how to win, and they really want to “three-peat”.