Curve sweep Reading Phils in style, clinch division playoff spot

The magic number for clinching the second playoff spot was one. The Altoona Curve would claim the position before the night was over regardless of what they did in their doubleheader against Reading at Blair County Ballpark- Harrisburg defeated Bowie 7-0.
Altoona didn’t want to have to back into the playoffs, however. Nor did they have to. Behind the solid pitching of top Pirate prospect John VanBenschoten and the hitting of batterymate Chris Heintz, the Curve took the first game 7-1. Then they came back in the second game with Rick Palma tossing five scoreless innings to complete the double dip sweep with a 6-1 triumph.
VanBenschoten had a bit of a problem in the top of the first, yielding one-out singles to Buzz Hannahan and Eastern League home run leader Jeff Inglin. Cleanup hitter Jim Duschene scored Hannahan with a fielder’s choice for a 1-0 Curve deficit. Nate Espy singled and VanBenschoten hit Jay Sitzman with a pitch to load the bases. The 6-5, 225-pound Altoona righty got catcher Edgar Cruz to ground into a force play to prevent further damage, then pitched shutout ball over the following six innings for his first professional complete game victory.
VanBenschoten scattered five hits, allowing just one run, while striking out two and walking one to improve his record to 7-5 with the Curve.
“It’s always special to clinch it (the playoff spot) on that kind of game, on that kind of night,” explained VanBenschoten between games. “All of a sudden the crowd wakes up in the seventh inning. It’s just kind of special. In the first inning, it was just a matter of feeling out the batters. They had a couple hits, but the hard hit balls were caught here and there. They were just hitting the balls I was pitching. The offense came out today and Heintz played an unbelievable game. I give him a lot of the credit behind the plate. It would have been nice to have done it a lot earlier, but it’s nice to be able to clinch it here at home and do everything here.”
Altoona came right back to tie the score in the bottom of the first, then jumped into a 3-1 lead after three innings and broke the game open with four additional tallies in the fifth to give VanBenschoten the opportunity to cruise through the rest of the seven-inning game.
“It was crucial for VanBenschoten to give us what we needed with our bullpen in the shape it’s in right now,” said Curve manager Dale Sveum.
Curve catch Chris Heintz provided the big insurance runs. First after Altoona had edged ahead 2-1, Heintz singled up the middle with two outs in the third inning, to score Brett Roneberg to make the score 3-1.
Then in the fifth, with the bases loaded, Heintz ripped a triple down the right field line to clear the bases scoring Chris Shelton, Jose Castillo and Ray Navarrete to jump the lead to 6-1. VanBenschoten, who went two-for-three at bat, helped himself with an RBI single that scored Heintz with the final run of the game.
“My feeling was a sigh of relief when Heintz hit the three-run triple,” said Curve third baseman Joe Caruso, from nearby Lock Haven. “I was on deck. I was glad he got the triple. I didn’t have to come through. He came up with another big base hit, like he has done many times this year. I thought ‘finally we are going to clinch this thing and we’re doing it at home.’ Now we can prepare for the playoffs.”
Ray Sadler was hit by a pitch to began the first and Chris Duffy advanced him to second, beating out a bunt single for the first of four hits for the Curve centerfielder. Roneberg flied out deep enough to get Sadler to third and Shelton scored him with a single to right.
In the third stanza, Duffy doubled and Roneberg walked. Jose Castillo sent Duffy home with a sacrifice fly to get the Curve the lead and Heintz took care of the rest.
“The guys did it in style, obviously like they have done it all year long,” said Sveum. “They came back after a tough loss yesterday. It was as good as I’ve seen this bunch of guys swing the bat against probably the best right-handed pitcher in the league. It was pretty impressive for these guys to come out and do what they did.”
In the nightcap, the Curve jumped out in front before the crowd of 5,455, with a pair of runs in the first, one in the third and three to give Altoona a solid 6-0 lead in the fifth.
Palma, a reliever/spot starter made his record 4-0 as a starter with three-hit scoreless ball over the first five innings. Shawn Camp pitched the final two innings, yielding Readings only tally of the game on a Uriel Casillas home run with two outs in the seventh. Palma didn’t walk a hitter while fanning five. Camp struck out one, giving up two hits and one run.
Brett Roneberg doubled twice and singled to lead the attack in game two and Chris Shelton singled, doubled and hit a sac fly to drive in four runs. Jose Castillo tripled home a run in the first and singled.
“It was awesome to win it here,” said Roneberg. “We thought we were going to win one of those games in Bowie, but it really didn’t matter that much and tonight was great. It will be nice to set ourselves up the way Sveumer wants it to get our hitters going. We’ve got a couple guys hurt. If we can get those guys back and be ready to go and play hard, we’ll be ready for Akron in the playoffs.”
The series continues tonight with Altoona playing Reading at 7:05 in game three of the four-game set. Mike Connolly (6-8, 3.59) will be on the mound for Altoona, while Reading will counter with Layne Dawson (1-8, 8.03).