Altoona Curve 7, Akron RubberDucks 2

Coming into Sunday night’s game against the Altoona Curve, the Akron RubberDucks were on a five-game streak, looking for a six-game sweep of the Curve. Ducks’ pitchers had thrown 29 straight scoreless innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates’ affiliate, and Akron right-hander Thomas Ponticelli was able to extend that streak for another inning and two-thirds until the Curve plated a runner in the second after a leadoff double by first-baseman Mason Martin was followed by a wild-pitch and a sac fly from right-fielder Cal Mitchell.

Ponticelli gave up three runs in 3.1IP, including a mammoth blast to shortstop Oneil Cruz of the Curve (ranked as the Pirates’ sixth best prospect by FanGraphs). Cruz is six-foot, seven-inches tall, and he showed off his plus power in a home run to right-field that bounced out of the stadium. Ponticelli’s fastball was steadily 92 mph, his changeup was 84-86 and his curve was 77. He goes to his change-up frequently and has decent ability to keep Double-A hitters at bay with it. Other than the mistake pitch (a fastball middle) to Cruz, he hung around and kept the team in the game while throwing 64 pitches.

It was Harry Potter night at Canal Park, however, and someone may have put a curse on RubberDucks pitches, because Ponticelli’s walk and wild pitch were a portent of control issues to come, with the Akron staff hitting two batters, walking five, and throwing three wild pitches before the game concluded.

Roberto Perez and Ernie Clement rehab

Roberto Perez and Ernie Clement continued their rehab stints at the game, with Perez catching and Clement batting as the designated-hitter. Neither was able to reach base, but Perez combined with shortstop Brayan Rocchio on a nifty caught-stealing in the sixth, nabbing the trail runner, Mitchell, in an attempted double-steal.

Perez displayed his usual quick pop time while Rocchio positioned himself perfectly and deftly tagged Mitchell in a bang-bang play. Watching Perez is a bittersweet experience these days, as one has to wonder how much longer he will be with the Cleveland franchise given his age and contract situation. His tremendous skills as a catcher, game-caller, and controller of the run game have anchored a great Cleveland pitching staff for years and he was solid as usual behind the dish for Akron on Sunday night.

The Ducks are in a completely different position than when Clement last played with them in 2019, when they finished 11th in their league. The 2021 Double-A affiliate is four games up as the top team of their league and six games ahead in their division. After the game, Clement said, regarding the difference in the atmosphere between 2019 and 2021.

“It’s awesome. It seems like they have a really good group. I had fun the last couple days hanging out with them and getting to go to work with them. I’ve known a lot of them from spring training or other times in my career. They’re all really awesome guys and they welcomed me in. We had a good time. Hopefully, they can keep getting on a nice little run and win a championship.”

Clement’s double-play partner from Saturday night, Rocchio, had a difficult night at the plate, striking out three times, swinging at some low breaking pitches. Aside from his tag play, however, the shortstop charged a high-bounding, slow grounder in the third and attempted to make a quick transfer and throw to get the speedy second-baseman Ji-Hwan Bae at first. He couldn’t quite get a grip on the ball this time, but the attempt displayed some of the creativity Rocchio is willing to employ with his plus glove in the field.

‘Ducks bullpen up and down

Left-hander Jake Miednik contributed a scoreless inning and a third for Akron, throwing a 92-91 mph fastball, an 85-86 mph slider, and a 80-81 mph curve. Right-hander Dakody Clemmer was 93 mph with his fastball and 80-84 with a slider. Clemmer demonstrated an intriguing three-quarters-style delivery, which looks deceiving to hitters when he can get ahead in the count. However, he struggled with control in a scoreless inning, allowing a hit, walking two and hitting a batter, but magically escaping unscathed with the help of the Perez-Rocchio caught-stealing play.

Things really fell apart for the Ducks in the top of the seventh inning, when lefty Skylar Arias entered. Arias couldn’t really command his 90-91 mph fastball or his 81 mph slider, throwing three wild pitches (one, scoring a runner), walking three batters and also hitting one. A high chopper that bounced over Ike Freeman’s head brought in another two runs, making the score 6-1 for Altoona. Arias has a release point near his head that seems like it is deceiving for hitters trying to track the ball, but the Curve lineup had little reason to offer at the pitches Arias offered them, most of them being well out of the zone. Manny Alvarez came on with two outs, and his 97-98 mph and 83 mph curveball cast a “Silencio” spell on the Altoona lineup. However, Alvarez still could not avoid the night’s continuing curse of control issues, handing out two walks in his inning and a third of scoreless relief.

Overall, it was a good night to get a glimpse at several Akron relievers, as the top of the ninth featured Nick Mikolajchak, the 24th ranked prospect in the Indians’ system according to FanGraphs in their January 2021 list. Mikolajchak uses an over-the-top delivery and showed a fastball sitting 94-95 mph, an 86-89 mph change, and an 82-85 mph curve. Mikolajchak allowed a run on a walk, an error and a wild pitch, but his stuff looks like it could play, as he demonstrated an ability to throw all three pitches for strikes and keep hitters off-balance.

For the Rubber Ducks’ offense, third-baseman Victor Nova was the only player with two hits, racking up a single in the sixth and a double in the ninth, showing off, first, solid speed, and, then, good instincts in going to third on a wild pitch that just eluded the Curve catcher, Carter Bins. Bins struggled trying to throw out the few runners who reached during the game, allowing stolen bases to left-fielder Chris Roller and right-fielder Clark Scolamiero, who scored the Ducks’ first run after a fifth inning single. Nova eventually came home in the final frame with the only other run of the game on a sacrifice fly from center-fielder Will Brennan. Brennan also drove Scolamiero in earlier in the game with another sac fly.

Also of note, Bo Naylor came in for Roberto Perez in the sixth and he continues to not get cheated, taking monster swings in going down on strikes.

After the game, Ernie Clement offered some insight on his rehab stint, saying that he is feeling good and looking forward to rejoining the major league team whenever the timing is right. Regarding the time he has seen at short, second and third in the majors.

Clement noted, “I’ve tried to really embrace that role, hopping in wherever they need me, it’s been really good. I’m getting comfortable at second, I’m getting really comfortable at third, and as you can add those positions to the arsenal, it can only help.”

Cleveland fans have certainly enjoyed seeing some outstanding plays from Clement in his time with the Indians.

Clement has also shown a fun personality, recently lighting up Indians’ Twitter with a fun tweet about fellow Indians’ prospect Tyler Freeman rehabbing by sweeping a room.

When asked about the tweet in which he playfully mimicked a popular Indians’ prospect account, Clement laughed and said, “I was bored, and sick for a couple days, and Tyler’s a really good friend of mine – we work out together in the offseason. And, we decided we would mess around on Twitter a little bit, all in good fun. It seems like he (Tyler) is going to bounce back really well and have a great season next year.”

In a similar fun-loving vein, Clement offered up the information that the Harry Potter-themed night was appropriate for his rehab stint as he is a big fan of the franchise.

“When I was sick recently, I watched pretty much every Harry Potter all the way through.” Clement said.

The rehabbing infielder noted that his favorite character is the house elf, Dobby, a character whose willingness to be of service in any way possible to the heroes makes sense in relation to the versatile Clement’s being always game to play wherever he is needed.

So, while it wasn’t a great outcome in the game for the Ducks, being unable to complete the series sweep of the Curve, the atmosphere was still fun for fans of Harry Potter and for fans looking to see Clement and Perez before they rejoin the major league team.

Akron will look to clinch their division, and league, over the next 12 games, with a road trip to Richmond before returning home to finish the regular season against Somerset.

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