Mel Rojas Jr. has been the Curve's "savior" this season, according to his manager, and the team's best all-around player delivered a huge hit in the clutch Monday night.
Rojas smacked a bases-loaded, two-run single to right field in the eighth inning to give Altoona the lead in a 4-3 win over Akron before 2,204 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field. Rojas went 3-for-4 with three RBIs and is now tied for third in the Eastern League with 30 runs driven in.
"Mel has been our savior this year," Curve manager Carlos Garcia said. "Mel is putting together a really good season. He is one of the cases that he gets better every year."
This year is certainly proof of that.
Rojas is hitting .305 with an .806 OPS, but the real number that jumps out is his RBI total. The outfielder had 41 RBIs in 120 games for the Curve last season, and he'll likely obliterate that this year as he's currently on pace for 103 RBIs.
He's always been a top-of-the-order hitter, but this season Rojas has been counted on to bat cleanup or in the No. 3 hole. Garcia put that kind of faith in him, and Rojas has responded to it.
"He's our most consistent batter we have so far," Garcia said.
Any go-ahead hit in the eighth inning is big, but the one Monday was especially so since the Curve came into the game with a 3-10 record against Akron. It appeared the RubberDucks were in good shape to win again up 3-2, but the Curve put together a rally to give Rojas a big opportunity.
Jarek Cunningham led off with a single, Gift Ngoepe dropped down a perfect sacrifice bunt and beat it out for a hit, then Alen Hanson walked to load the bases with no outs. Rojas followed with a single to right to bring home Cunningham and Ngoepe.
"That was a huge knock," Rojas said. "It was a huge inning for us, too," he added before giving credit to Cunningham, Ngoepe and Hanson for setting up the comeback.
Rojas' career high in RBIs is 51 at high-A Bradenton in 2012, but now he's getting a lot more chances to drive in runs. He also had an RBI double in the first inning.
"My approach has helped me a lot, always trying to stay middle the other way," he said. "That makes me recognize the pitches well, and if I don't like it, I just wait on it."
The Pirates drafted Rojas in the third round in 2010, and he has shown a lot of the qualities it takes to play in the major leagues. The trouble for him is the Pirates already have Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte in the outfield, plus Gregory Polanco on the way, so there's really no starting spot for Rojas even if he keeps playing well.
"I actually don't think about it or don't even get distracted with it," Rojas said. "I just try to focus on here doing my job, and whatever happens, happens. If I get traded or I get moved up, it happens. Whatever the bosses say. But I know I'm ready to do my job."
Polanco just so happens to be Rojas' best friend, and the two talk every night. Asked to pick out one personal thing about Polanco that Pirates fans would most want to know, Rojas replied, "maturity."
He also said Polanco is aware that Bucco fans can't wait to see him in the majors.
"We always talk about all that stuff every night," Rojas said. "I'm happy for him because I know how he can be mature about it and just focus. I feel like that would be a lot of pressure, but he just puts it away and stays focused in the game."
Ngoepe, Rojas and Matt Curry had three hits apiece for the Curve.
Joan Montero (1-1) won in relief for Altoona, and Emmanuel De Leon (2) earned the save. Akron's Giovanni Soto (0-1) took the loss.
Key player: CF Mel Rojas Jr. went 3-for-4 with three RBIs.
Key play: Rojas' bases-loaded two-run single in the eighth put the Curve ahead to stay.
Key stat: Rojas leads the Curve and is tied for third in the Eastern League with 30 RBIs.
How they scored
Bottom 1st: Ngoepe singled, scored on Rojas double (1-0); Hanson singled, scored on Curry single (2-0).
Top 5th: Rodriguez solo homer (2-1); Smith walked, scored on Naquin groundout (2-2).
Top 7th: Lavisky singled, scored on Holt sacrifice fly (2-3).
Bottom 8th: Cunningham singled, Ngoepe singled, both scored on Rojas single (4-3).