Justin Howard can hit Double-A pitching. No doubt about it.
The guy hit .333 in the Curve's final 78 games last year, the third-best average in all of Double-A after June 1.
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, Howard not only had to come back to Altoona this year, the first baseman/outfielder came back and didn't even have an everyday job.
The Pirates have more than $2 million invested in Stetson Allie, so the slugger is going to play first base every day. The outfield also was filled, leaving Howard on the bench.
If that wasn't enough, when another first baseman, Matt Curry, returned from a hand injury in early May, it made things even tougher for Howard to get playing time.
Again, this is a player who torched the ball for three months last season.
Tonight: Harrisburg at Altoona, 6 p.m.
Pitchers: Curve RHP Joan Montero (2-3, 4.66) vs. Senators RHP Brian Dupra (1-3, 5.04)
Covering the bases: Page B2
But he's not a priority prospect.
Which means ...
"He's got to prove himself every day because he's got so many guys in front of him," Curve manager Carlos Garcia said. "Every opportunity he gets, he's got to try to make the best of it."
Howard certainly made the best of his very brief opportunity Friday night. He saw only one pitch as a pinch hitter, and he crushed it for a go-ahead two-run homer to lead the Curve to a 4-2 win over Harrisburg.
"It was great to get a hit, let alone a home run," Howard said. "It was awesome.
"Fastball, middle in, good part of the plate and just reacted to it and got it good."
The Fourth of July game drew 8,845 fans, the sixth-largest regular-season crowd in franchise history.
Thanks to Howard, and a ninth-inning tightrope act by closer Kenn Kasparek, the fans got to enjoy a quality victory before enjoying a 30-minute combo fireworks show between Lakemont Park and the Curve.
Howard's pinch-hit homer to deep center broke up a tie game and gave Altoona a 3-1 lead in the sixth.
The 26-year-old Texan is having a tough season because of the lack of consistent playing time - hitting .226 with three homers and nine RBIs - but he hasn't let it get him down.
"His attitude is great," Garcia said. "He knows and understands the position he's in. Unfortunately, he doesn't have a choice. He's got to have a great attitude, he's got to be a good clubhouse guy, a good teammate, support everybody because this is the only way he's going to some day at some point get the opportunity to play."
Howard got such an opportunity last season after Curry went down with an injury and Andrew Lambo was promoted to Triple-A. His success a year ago - .314 average, .405 on-base percentage, eight homers, 38 RBIs, .864 OPS - helps motivate him to know he can perform at this level when he gets a chance.
"To have the success last year, I know it's in there, so I just have to keep grinding," he said.
It's tough for any player used to playing every day to succeed in a limited role, but the irony is that the only way someone like Howard will get to play every day is if he does make a big impact off the bench. He hasn't been able to do that this year.
"The opportunities that I've gotten, I haven't really done much with them," he said. "I feel I'm better than what my numbers have shown."
The most important thing he can do is continue to show up to the ballpark with a good attitude ready to play every day and make the most of whatever opportunity he does get.
"If I came in here with a bad attitude being selfish, it's not going to do anybody good," Howard said. "It's not going to do me good, not going to do my team good. So I've just got to keep that team attitude, and if I'm helping my team win, then my individual performance will be there.
"Hopefully someday I'll get another chance to be an everyday player, but until then, I'm going to keep working hard and fill my role that I have right now."
Pat Ludwig (1-3) won his first Double-A game, holding Harrisburg to one run on five hits in six innings, striking out six. Senators starter Brett Brach (1-4) took the loss.
Harrisburg threatened in the ninth while trailing, 4-2, loading the bases with two outs. Kasparek, though, continued his solid work in his new closer role, converting his third consecutive save by striking out Michael Taylor looking to end the game.
Key player: PH Justin Howard went 1-for-1 with a two-run homer.
Key play: Howard's blast gave the Curve a 3-1 lead in the sixth.
Key stat: The crowd of 8,845 was the Curve's sixth-largest ever for a regular-season game.
How they scored
Bottom 3rd: Diaz reached on fielder's choice, scored on Allie single (1-0).
Top 5th: Jeroloman solo homer (1-1).
Bottom 6th: Broxton doubled, scored on Howard two-run homer (3-1).
Top 7th: Keyes solo homer (3-2).
Bottom 7th: Maggi reached on Skole error, scored on Curry single (4-2).