Richmond got into a pickle Thursday night at the same time that the Curve was getting out of one.
With the Flying Squirrels trailing, 2-1 in the top of the eighth inning at Peoples Natural Gas Field, and threatening to tie the game with runners at the corners and two outs, an alert play by Curve catcher Ramon Cabrera and shortstop Gustavo Nunez saved the day for Altoona.
With outfielder Juan Perez on third base, and Wendell Fairley pinch-running at first base, Cabrera smothered a slider thrown low in the dirt by Curve reliever Mike Colla.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Curve starter Tyler Waldron fires a pitch Thursday night.
As Perez broke for home plate and Fairley moved toward second, Cabrera's throw to Nunez left both runners hung out to dry. Nunez - a Rule 5 acquisition by the Pirates organization who was playing his first game with the Curve Thursday as part of a major league rehab assignment - chased Fairley back toward first base as Perez was speeding for the plate.
Nunez then wheeled and unleashed a perfect throw to Cabrera that beat Perez at home and choked off what would have been the tying run as Altoona preserved its 2-1 win in the series opener before a crowd of 5,320.
"I called for a slider, and I noticed the guy on first base was going when I was blocking the ball,'' Cabrera said. "I just wanted to make a good throw to the shortstop, and I knew the runner from third base was running hard to the plate. I got a good throw from the shortstop. It was a good play, and we executed it well.''
Covering the bases
LEADING OFF: Curve catcher Ramon Cabrera extended his hitting streak to nine straight games with a run-scoring, fifth-inning double. Cabrera went 1-for-3 Thursday, and he has now hit safely in 15 of his last 38 official plate appearances, a .395 average.
SAFE AT FIRST: Shortstop Gustavo Nunez, a Rule 5 acquisition by the Pirates organization, played his first game with the Curve Thursday as part of a major league rehab assignment. Prior to Thursday, Nunez had played in just seven games this season between the Gulf Coast League and high Class A Bradenton after recovering from ankle surgery. He had been in the Detroit Tigers' organization in 2011.
STEALING SECOND: One of the Curve's top pitching prospects, righthander Jameson Taillon, will make his Altoona debut at Blair County Ballpark in Sunday's 6 p.m. series finale against Richmond at Peoples Natural Gas Field. Curve manager P.J. Forbes Thursday said that Taillon - who made his Curve debut with a win in Trenton earlier this week - will be on a pitch count Sunday, but didn't say what that count would be. "The fans here should be excited,'' Forbes said. "[Taillon] and [right-hander] Gerrit Cole are part of what the future is going to be in Pittsburgh.''
ROUNDING THIRD: With Thursday's victory, Altoona improved its season record to 10-8 in the season series with Richmond, including an 8-3 mark at Peoples Natural Gas Field.
HEADING HOME: Richmond relief pitcher Brett Bochy has been put on the 25-day disabled list with fatigue in his right [throwing] shoulder. Bochy - a 2012 Eastern League All-Star - is the son of San Francisco Giants' manager Bruce Bochy.
-- John Hartsock
Nunez, who is rehabbing an ankle injury, has played just eight games in the Pirates minor league system this year after being picked up from the Detroit Tigers organization.
"I looked at the runner at third base, and I threw hard to the catcher,'' Nunez said.
Curve manager P.J. Forbes thought the play was pivotal.
"Cabby made a good block and throw to create the rundown,'' Forbes said of Cabrera. "And Nuny [Nunez] didn't panic and delivered a strike to the plate. That play gave us momentum. All year, pitching and defense have been the keys for us. When those two things are on cue, we've got a good chance to win.''
The Curve (63-67) got solid pitching from starting righthander Tyler Waldron, who allowed Richmond just one run on six hits in 5 innings while striking out five batters to get the victory. Colla had a solid effort in middle relief, allowing just two eighth-inning singles by Perez and Hodges and working out of the big jam, and fireballing reliever Vic Black worked a perfect ninth inning for the save, striking out two of the three batters he faced.
The Curve needed to be on their 'A' game because they faced one of the Eastern League's top pitchers, righthander Chris Heston, whose 2.08 earned run average going into Thursday's game led the league.
"When you get a guy like Heston on the mound, you're going to have to scratch and claw to get runs,'' Forbes said.
Richmond scored its only run in the first inning on three successive hits. Third baseman Daniel Mayora singled, advanced to second on Perez's double to right-center, and scored when first baseman Wes Hodges lined a single off the outstretched glove of Curve second baseman Jarek Cunningham.
The Curve tied the game, 1-1 in the fifth inning. Centerfielder Quincy Latimore, who reached base in all four plate appearances, drew a leadoff walk, moved to second on Waldron's sacrifice bunt, and scored when Cabrera short-hopped the outfield wall in right-centerfield with a double, extending his personal hitting streak to nine games.
The Curve - who notched their 999th victory in franchise history Thursday - moved ahead to stay, 2-1 with a sixth-inning run off Heston. First baseman Matt Curry smoked a bad-hop double off first baseman Hodges down the rightfield line, and leftfielder Oscar Tejada's single to left moved Curry to third with nobody out. Curry scored when third baseman Stefan Welch grounded into a forceout.
That set the stage for Richmond's pivotal eighth inning, which Perez and Hodges started with singles before the defensive heroics by Cabrera and Nunez.
The Curve's playoff hopes are very slim as the final days of regular-season play wind down, but Forbes said his team is just taking one game at a time.
"We're just going to go out and play hard the rest of the way,'' he said. "You can't control anything else.''
Key player: Curve center fielder Quincy Latimore was 2-for-2 with two walks and a run scored in four official plate appearances.
Key play: The Curve shut down the potential tying run in the eighth inning, when outfielder Juan Perez was thrown out trying to steal home plate by shortstop Gustavo Nunez. Catcher Ramon Cabrera made the tag.
Key stat: The Curve were able to defeat outstanding Richmond righthander Chris Heston, who entered the game with an Eastern League-leading 2.08 earned run average. Heston gave up just two runs, both earned, on five hits in six innings.
How they scored
Top 1st: Mayora singled, advanced to third on Perez double, and scored on Hodges single. (0-1).
Bottom 5th: Latimore walked, advanced to second on Waldron sacrifice, and scored on Cabrera double (1-1).
Bottom 6th: Curry doubled, advanced to third on Tejada single, and scored on Welch forceout (2-1).