By Cory Giger
Neil Walker joked afterward that it looked like it was going to be a 15-inning kind of night, but the Curve offense prevented that with a second straight big game.
Altoona ripped 15 hits and rallied for two runs in the eighth inning Thursday night to beat Richmond, 9-8, before 2,250 fans at Peoples Natural Gas Field. Walker played his first of two rehab games from the Pirates and went 1-for-4 with a double in six innings.
“It was nice to get four at-bats, and timing-wise, that’s about what I needed for the day,” said Walker, who plans to play all nine innings tonight and then fly to New York on Saturday to rejoin the Pirates.
Walker can come off the disabled list Sunday.
Thursday’s game wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty as pitchers for both teams struggled, and Richmond’s defense helped out the Curve with three errors and a couple of other defensive lapses. Altoona got off to a good start with four runs in the second inning, and the offense has figured out its problems over the past two games, scoring 16 runs on 27 hits.
“Pitching-wise we are not sharp right now, but the offense is starting to pick it up,” Curve manager Carlos Garcia said.
That’s the irony of the past two days. The pitching staff has been superb all season but has faltered the past two games, while the offense has saved the day twice in a row.
“I think guys are just getting their pitch and hitting them,” said Jarek Cunningham, who just missed a grand slam in the eighth and had to settle for a game-tying single off the left field wall. “In the past we’ve had a lot of guys missing pitches early, getting to two strikes and having to battle. And now we’re getting pitches early in the count and driving them.”
Cunningham’s hit pulled the Curve even at 8-8, then Adalberto Santos hit a hot shot to second base that resulted in a forceout at second but brought home Stefan Welch with the go-ahead run. Welch also made a superb defensive play at first base to help the Curve get out of a bases-loaded, no outs jam in the seventh.
Santos, Mel Rojas Jr. and Andrew Lambo had three hits apiece for Altoona, while Gift Ngoepe had two hits in the leadoff spot for his third straight solid offensive game.
“When pitching lets down, offense has got to come back and pick them up,” Garcia said.
Curve starter Stolmy Pimentel has been one of the best pitchers in all of minor league baseball this season, but he had a rough night Thursday. Pimentel struggled with his command and allowed six runs on six hits and five walks in 4 1/3 innings to see his ERA nearly triple, from 0.74 to 1.99.
“He just tried to overthrow the ball, and there was no location whatsoever,” Garcia said.
“They know he has a good fastball,” the manager added. “He wasn’t establishing anything in or out, and he paid the price.”
Pimentel was clocked at 98 mph, but Garcia said that’s a bad sign for the pitcher because it means he’s trying to throw too hard and needs to settle more in the 94-95 mph range.
“When he tries to crank it up, that’s exactly what’s going to happen,” Garcia said.
Jason Townsend (1-1) won in relief for the Curve, while Phil McCormick (1-1) took the loss for Richmond.
Walker went hitless his first three at-bats, including a popup on the infield that stranded a runner at third base with one out. He smacked a single to deep left in the sixth and was able to stretch it into a double when the left fielder slipped.
Walker said he felt no problems with his right hand, which he injured sliding into second base April 26 and required six stitches.
“It took until my last at-bat to get my feet back underneath me, but that’s to be expected after not playing for 13 days,” he said.
The main thing for Walker in his two games with the Curve is just to get his timing back down so he’ll be ready for game action when he rejoins the Bucs this weekend.
“It wasn’t that kind of early spring training feel,” he said of coming back after two weeks. “You never know how you’re going to react as far as missing two weeks in a row, but the hand didn’t give me any issues.”
Key player: CF Mel Rojas Jr. went 3-for-4 with two RBIs and a run.
Key play: 2B Jarek Cunningham just missed a grand slam in the eighth but tied the game, then 3B Adalberto Santos gave the Curve the lead with an RBI groundout.
Key stat: Pirates 2B Neil Walker went 1-for-4 with a double in his first of two rehab games with the Curve.
How they scored
Top 1st: Minicozzi doubled, scored on Oropesa single (0-1).
Bottom 2nd: Lambo singled, scored on Rojas single (1-1); Santos singled, scored on Paulino sacrifice fly (2-1); Panik error scored Rojas (3-1) and let Pimentel reach; Dickerson single scored Pimentel (4-1).
Top 3rd: Minicozzi solo homer (4-2); Susac doubled, Oropesa walked, both scored on Parker triple (4-4).
Bottom 3rd: Santos singled, scored on Rojas double (5-4).
Top 4th: Bradley walked, scored on Panik sacrifice fly (5-5); Herrera doubled, scored on Pimentel wild pitch (5-6).
Bottom 4th: Pimentel reached on Adrianza error, scored on Bradley wild pitch (6-6); Ngoepe singled, scored on Lambo single (7-6).
Top 8th: Lollis doubled, scored on Herrera single (7-7); Panik double scored Herrera (7-8).
Bottom 8th: Dickerson reached on Adrianza error, scored on Cunningham single (8-8); Welch singled, scored on Santos groundout (9-8).